Living a rich, gratifying life has a lot to do with relationships—your relationship with yourself and your relationship with others. Ann Kaiser Stearns wrote that, “The most self-loving action any of us performs in a lifetime is learning to develop…close friendships.” Engaging in caring relationships is critical to our emotional health and well-being, yet most of us never learned the life skills needed to develop them.
Due to their life conditioning, not all people have what it takes to be supportive, and not all unsupportive people can be avoided – for example, sometimes you can’t escape family members and co-workers. But, the idea here is to begin to identify the qualities that support you, spend time with people who embody those qualities, and, as much as possible, avoid people who are detrimental to your well-being. There are many ways to cultivate healthy relationships, the first of which is to become a supportive friend to others. Below are some qualities and behaviors that foster positive relationships – qualities and behaviors you can develop within yourself and which you can seek out in others:
Be a good sounding board.
When a friend wants to talk to you about something he’s going through—a crisis or problem—the best approach is simply to listen. Don’t offer advice without asking permission, because it may be that he just wanted to share his experience or vent his frustration about a situation. He may be looking for someone to validate his feelings. Understanding and compassion should be the order of the day.
Don’t be judgmental.
It’s important to avoid being judgmental – especially if your friend is sharing something that’s in conflict with your own values. Remember that other people are not you; take care not to impose your values onto someone else. Remember, everybody’s doing the best they can at any given moment.
Avoid “shoulding” people.
I suggest refraining from telling people what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do. If you’re in a relationship with someone who has a habit of telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, that’s a red flag. Instead of listening, this person is basing their actions on assumptions about you or about the way you should be living your life.
Empathy is the act of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. It’s a trait you’ll want to develop in yourself and a quality you can be looking for in others. If someone tells you something painful, recounting a personal crisis she went through, or a difficult situation she faces, show compassion. The simple statement “I’m really sorry you had to go through that” can be the most supportive approach.
Practice emotional intelligence.
Look for, practice, and promote emotional maturity and intelligence in your relationships. Here’s an example. Say you’ve made plans with a friend to go out on New Year’s Eve, but you have to cancel because you have the flu. A supportive friend may be disappointed, but will be understanding. She might even offer to pick up some chicken soup or a movie for you. But, if your friend gets angry, it’s a tip-off that you’re not dealing with a supportive and emotionally mature person.
Cultivate effective communication skills.
You’ll encounter occasional conflicts with any friend. Those conflicts present you with an opportunity to determine whether you can meet each other on an emotionally mature footing. For example, I had a friend who snapped at me, early in our relationship, when I called her at an inconvenient time. In response, I didn’t blame her or counterattack; instead, I carefully composed an e-mail, saying: “I apologize for disturbing you last night. I tend to be sensitive to harsh communication styles, and although it may not have been your intention, I experienced your response as harsh. When you feel upset with me, it would be great if you could communicate your feelings in a more gentle way. I respond much better to that kind of communication.” She responded by calling me and apologizing. She was able to say: “I can be abrupt, especially when I feel like my space is being invaded. I’m sorry I snapped at you and I’ll try to be more sensitive going forward” As a result, our relationship has continued to grow and she has become one of my dearest friends.
Be emotionally honest.
Emotional honesty, which involves the willingness to be vulnerable, is central to sharing healthy relationships. For example, what if a friend says something hurtful to you? “You look like you’ve put on weight,” or “I saw your ex-husband last night with his new girlfriend and he looked really happy.” It’s important to tell that person how you feel. You might say: “I’m having a reaction to what you just said. It may not have been your intention, but I found what you said hurtful.” Many people believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. I see it, instead, as having the courage to be authentic. By saying, “I’m feeling hurt,” you’re laying yourself wide open. But it’s a gesture that shows other people that you care enough about them and the relationship to share who you really are, and you’re inviting them to be who they really are. And, when you do, the other person’s response speaks volumes. It will let you know whether or not this is a supportive person with whom you want to engage.
Know when to let go.
Every relationship hits bumps along the way, which is when effective communication becomes especially important. It helps you find out whether you can effectively work through a conflict and negotiate your differences with someone else. If you can’t – if the other person is not emotionally mature enough, not far enough along in his own development—you may find it’s better to let the relationship go. Then, rather than create an unpleasant drama, you can disengage in a respectful way. You can say: “I don’t think we’re a good fit as friends.” Or “I think our values or lifestyles are just too different to support a friendship.” The better you know yourself, the easier it is to assess whether people are a good fit as part of your outer support system.