A common interest, a shared joke, a memorable bonding experience — almost anything can be the basis for a friendship. But two things in particular keep them going: regular interaction and intimacy of communication.
If “intimacy” is a word you’ve always reserved for romantic partners, consider its full context. It implies closeness, familiarity, and quiet understanding, which are qualities that deepen any relationship. And cultivating a variety of social connections (romantic, familial, professional, and so on) is proven to reduce mortality, even when other risk factors are taken into account. Close friends can literally be a lifeline.
We don’t always nurture these valuable relationships with the depth of communication they deserve. And no wonder: Our culture offers few models of platonic intimacy. Social norms show us what closeness between a parent and child looks like, and there’s plenty of media representation of romantic relationships — but we don’t necessarily know how to express our love for our closest friends.
“People downplay how influential friends are. Marriage is seen as the ultimate relationship,” explains friendship coach Bailey T. Hurley, author of the forthcoming book Together Is a Beautiful Place, who notes that many of us have close friendships that last longer than marriages. Timidity about communicating more deeply with our pals, she says, can come from the fragility of the relationship. “There is no contract keeping you together — it’s not the same bond as a parent or child. Friends can leave you.”
This fragility can be fueled by our own fears: fear of what our friend will think if we’re vulnerable, fear of being betrayed, fear of coming on too strong.
But there is more richness and fulfillment in communicating intimately. Doing so regularly, Hurley adds, will establish a pattern of communication that can create more safety in your friendship. “The reward is worth diving in and going deep, because that’s where all the heart is,” she notes.
Try this expert advice for more courageous communication.
Speak Your Truth
Deeper intimacy can’t flourish without authenticity. Letting your friends see you as you are — your history, your concerns, your weaknesses — makes for stronger connections.
So, when your friend asks how you’re doing, give a real answer. “Our knee-jerk reaction is to say we’re fine and move on. It’s a tic in our communication,” says Kate Hanley, author of How to Be a Better Person and host of a podcast by the same name.
She suggests challenging yourself to say something more: Admit you’re tired. Maybe you’re annoyed that your favorite Netflix show was canceled. Or you’re refreshed after a satisfying night’s sleep. “Whatever is top of mind,” she says. “It doesn’t need to become a therapy session, but it could be a conversation starter.”
We can figure out who’s open to these more intimate conversations, Hurley suggests, by leaning in to those friends who reciprocate our communication style. “There are friends you don’t talk about the hard stuff with, and that’s OK. We need those relationships, too. Work to have grace for the ones who don’t communicate as deeply.” (For more on understanding your own style, see “The 4 Communication Styles“.)
In our younger years, when we had the luxury of copious time to spend with our friends, we knew all the details of one another’s life. Even as we grow older, we still crave this level of connection. “True friendships weather all kinds of ups and downs,” Hanley explains. “If you talk to your friends only when you’re up, you’re keeping your relationship at a surface level.” Being open about the mundane or moments of struggle helps relationships grow deeper roots.
“In order to be there for our friends, the most important thing we can do is be an empathetic witness to them,” Hanley says. “About 80 percent of friendship magic is listening and acknowledging them and what they’re going through.”
Good listening often requires more than your ears. If you’re together, make eye contact and don’t try to double-time your attention between your friend and a screen. Humans tend to mimic facial expressions as we read emotion, which increases our capacity to empathize and respond appropriately. That might include asking questions or providing reassurances that you’re listening, with a simple “I hear you” or by nodding or reaching out to touch your friend’s hand.
“One way to be a good listener is to follow up on what you’re hearing,” Hurley says. “If a friend has an important appointment, make a note and follow up. It shows you listened and remembered.” (For more on how to be a better listener, go to “5 Tips to Become a Better Listener“.)
Praise and Affirm
We might assume that our friends already know they’re important to us. Friendship, after all, involves a mutual understanding of each other’s place in our lives. Yet there’s a fine line between intuitively knowing something and taking it for granted, which is why it’s worthwhile to consciously affirm your closest pals from time to time.
Technology can be helpful here — sending a text or tagging a friend in a meme can be a quick way to say, “I’m thinking of you.” But that’s not as intimate as using your words, in a written note or spoken in person. “I appreciate your laugh.” “Thank you for knowing I’m not a morning person and leaving me alone until noon.” “I love you and I love that you’re in my life.”
Nonverbal affirmations are important, too. “Constancy is an ingredient for a wonderful friendship,” Hurley notes. “Be constant in the way you’re available, in how you show up.” (For more on how to maintain meaningful connections, see “Why Meaningful Encounters Matter“.)
Ask for Help
It’s not always easy to directly ask someone for support, especially because we don’t want to inconvenience them. But good friends are in our lives for more than fun and conversation. In fact, knowing that a friend will show up for you is valuable relationship currency.
“People feel an affinity toward those who have asked for their help,” Hurley says. Though we often presume that people don’t want to be burdened, coming through for a pal — or having a pal come through for you — can strengthen your bond and reduce that feeling of fragility in a friendship.
What’s more, Hanley adds, humans have a primal need for meaning. “Helping a friend in need gives us an immediate and tangible way to do something of value,” she says. “Beyond that, asking a friend for help requires you to be vulnerable, and when your normal everyday protections are down, there’s a real opportunity for deeper connection.”
What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
When a friend is struggling, we might feel at a loss for words. Instead of offering frantic advice or trying to cheer them up, start by simply being present.
“The first thing to do is listen and be receptive,” says Kate Hanley, author of How to Be a Better Person. “Be open enough to let their words in and validate what they shared with you by saying things like ‘I hear you saying . . .’ or ‘It makes sense that . . .’ or ‘It sounds like . . .’ ”
Hanley also suggests repeating words your friend uses, so you don’t use language that implies judgment.
Though you might feel like you want to do more to help your friend, it’s important to remember your role. “We get mixed up on what is actually helpful,” Hanley says. “It’s not helpful to view their challenges as your problem to fix.”
What is helpful is to empower them to find their own solutions. Ask questions like “What do you need?” Or, “What do you think is the way forward?” Or say, “I’m here for you as you work through this.”
“Big emotions aren’t there to torture us,” Hanley notes. Rather, they show up to offer us some insight, to point out something that needs healing, or to help us address a deeper problem. “Jumping in to problem-solve or attempting to absolve their fear with toxic positivity may inhibit your friend from recognizing the insight that the emotion is trying to help them understand.” (For more on toxic positivity, see “The Downside of Optimism“.)