This Is the Secret to Close Friendships
How to build honesty and rebound from dishonesty in our friendships.
Posted Jul 30, 2019
One common thread I hear in my work as a therapist who focuses on friendship is just how disconnected so many of us feel from our friends and communities. Feeling lonely or dissatisfied with our social network has less to do with the number of connections we have and everything to do with the quality of the relationships we hold on to.
Our friendships are so closely linked with our well-being and sense of belonging because they are voluntary. There is no expectation that we have to stay in our friends’ lives, which is why it’s so important that we choose, cultivate, and maintain healthy friendships.
When you think of the most important quality of a best friend, what comes to mind? A recent global study by Snap Inc. polled 10,000 people aged 13-75 from nine countries and found that, for most of us, honesty tops the list.
Disclosing what we’re thinking and feeling helps us build trust and intimacy. Honesty is a relationship-builder, and a means for connection and comfort. It can also be a relationship-mender; giving honest feedback or owning up to mistakes helps us manage conflict and maintain our friendships.
However, the Snap Inc. team found a number of topics that people just aren’t comfortable sharing with friends, including mental health, finances, and relationship difficulties. This is potentially worrisome since dishonesty or a lack of disclosure can create disconnection and heartache. It robs us of emotional intimacy and much-needed support, can keep us stuck in a cycle of dissatisfaction or shame, and lead to conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the same study showed that dishonesty was the number one enemy of friendship. Not knowing how or when to open up, not giving our friends the space to do so, or pressuring them to share what they aren’t ready to can likewise create challenges.
It’s not always clear how we can harness honesty to build closeness and meaning in our friendships. Nothing raises a red flag more than hearing the words “trust me.” The same is true with honesty. It’s not enough to tell a friend you’re being open. You need to show them. To make them feel it.
Building Honesty in Friendships
1. Challenge unhelpful thoughts.
So many of us have firmly held beliefs that hold us back from opening up. I don’t want to be a burden. If we argue, it’ll be the end of our friendship. The starting point for building honesty is recognizing the thoughts that keep us from connecting with friends. Challenge these with compassion and flexibility. Know that we all deserve to have our voices heard and that honesty doesn’t necessarily create conflict; it’s often a catalyst for problem-solving and closer, more balanced friendships.
2. Start small.
Sharing the big (and sometimes scary) parts of life can lead to powerful moments of connection, but so can opening up about the smaller stuff. Gradually moving from chats about weekend plans or a favorite series to more personal values and experiences allows us to build trust and closeness organically. It also creates a foundation to fall back on when we need to share something sensitive, like tough feedback or a mistake we’ve made.
3. Find a balance.
It’s equally important to give our friends the space to share on their own terms. Instead of jumping in to “fix” whatever a friend is struggling with, defend yourself from difficult feedback, or pressure them to open up, let them know that you’re willing to listen whenever they are ready and validate how tough it can be to open up. An empathic approach is far more helpful than a forceful one for encouraging honesty and constructive conversations.
4. Respect boundaries.
Honesty really only carries weight when it’s voluntary. It shouldn’t feel cursory, and it definitely shouldn’t feel coerced. To open up about the things that really matter and have the potential to bring us closer, we need to recognize and respect what we and our friends just aren’t ready or willing to share.
Rebounding from Dishonesty
1. Validate your friend’s perspective.
Highlight that you know honesty is important and understand their perspective or disappointment. Better yet, point out that you might feel similarly if you were in their position. Validation is an important tool for conflict transformation and connection. It can likewise help to label that owning up to dishonesty is difficult, and you appreciate their courage.
2. Give context.
We easily assume that our friends have insight into our thoughts when this isn’t always so. It helps to share why honesty is important to you. Does it allow you to feel closer, or is it a personal value or moral issue? On the other hand, it can help to explain why you were dishonest. It’s a delicate dance.
Giving context should never be done to minimize or deflect responsibility, but sharing, for example, that you held back because it’s hard for you to think about or admit to something can stop friends from feeling rejected. Whichever side you find yourself on, being open can help you feel understood and both of you to find common ground.
3. Take responsibility.
If you’ve let a friend down, acknowledge just how much you appreciate your friendship and how sorry you are. It’s tricky because apologizing can make us feel incredibly vulnerable. And yet, it’s this very vulnerability that allows us to re-connect and establish trust moving forward. Focus on your own actions (“I’m sorry I didn’t share this with you”) as opposed to a friend’s hurt feelings (“I’m sorry you’re upset” or, worse yet, “I’m sorry you feel that way”); these non-apologies tend to feel dismissive.
4. Commit to change.
Being honest about whatever you withheld or concealed is an option, as is finding other meaningful ways to connect or topics to disclose. Alternatively, working toward sharing why it’s hard to open up, without sharing the specifics of what you’re struggling with, can build closeness while respecting boundaries.
On the other side, when we feel betrayed, we feel powerless, which is why it helps to focus on the things we can control. Ask yourself: "What can I do differently going forward?” It’s also worth questioning whether this is a pattern (in this friendship or others), in which case, it might help to make expectations clearer or think about who you choose to let in.
Ultimately, conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. Luckily, it also has the potential to bring us closer together. We each have our own ideas about and relationship with honesty. Only by being open, both with ourselves and friends, about our needs, expectations, and boundaries can we encourage intimacy and allow friends to do the same. It also helps to have a little patience and a lot of self-compassion. Just as building closeness takes time, so does repairing trust.
Disclosure: While I was financially compensated by Snap Inc. to participate as an expert in their global study, titled The Friendship Report, the opinions expressed in this article are completely my own.
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