When life gets busy (and isn’t it always?), there’s a tendency to put our friendships on autopilot. A little bit of coasting here and there is fine, but in the long run, if we don’t approach these relationships with intentionality, we can drift apart or, worse, hurt our friend.
We asked experts to reveal the things we do — often inadvertently — that may not seem like a big deal, but could be sabotaging your friendships. Below, they explain what sneaky behaviors to look out for and what to do instead.
1. You give unsolicited advice when your friend just wants to vent.
When a friend is dealing with an issue — say a disagreement with their partner or feeling unappreciated work — sometimes they’re looking for solutions and other times they just want a supportive listening ear. Though you mean well, giving advice when they’re looking to vent can backfire and lead to more frustration.
“If your friend asks for advice, that’s one thing. But if you always volunteer it, especially if you make your friend feel like you know what the right thing is for your friend to do, you may find your friend sharing less and less with you,” sociologist and friendship expert Jan Yager — author of ”Friendgevity: Making and Keeping the Friends Who Enhance and Even Extend Your Life” — told HuffPost. “This can undermine your friend not just because your friend may feel like you think you ‘know it all’ when there are circumstances or issues that you do not understand completely, but it also takes away from your friend the responsibility of solving their issues on their own.”
Before you tell them how to fix their problems, ask them point blank: Do you want my opinion here? (Or, phrased another way, “Do you want comfort or solutions?”)
“You may be surprised that your friend replies, ‘Sure, thanks for offering,’ or ‘No, I just wanted to share about what’s going on,’” Yager said.
2. You don’t ask questions about their life.
Your friend checks in with you every so often to see how your new job is going, if your anxiety has been OK lately and what’s going on with your family. You fill them in but rarely leave enough time in the conversation to ask about how they’ve been.
“One of the biggest complaints people have about friendships is feeling like a friend is not interested in them. Specifically, a friend who does not ask them questions about themselves and their experiences can be a dealbreaker,” said Anna Poss, a therapist based in Chicago. “It leaves people feeling insecure and ignored.”
“A friend who does not ask them questions about themselves and their experiences can be a dealbreaker. It leaves people feeling insecure and ignored.”
– Anna Poss, a therapist based in Chicago
To remedy this, start making a conscious commitment to check in with your friend and steer the conversation back to them when you do talk. If you struggle in this area, Poss recommends setting a goal of asking a certain number of questions before talking about yourself again until the habit becomes ingrained.
3. You avoid confrontation at all costs.
Even the smoothest friendships hit a bump in the road occasionally. At some point, your friend is going to say something that hurts your feelings or do something to piss you off. When it happens, do you tell this person what bothered you? Or do you complain about it to your other friends instead?
“Too often if a friend has wronged us, we avoid talking to them,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, workplace belonging expert and author of “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.” “Instead, we go and vent to our other friends about what’s going on. This might feel good in the short term, but it avoids the issue at hand.”
Confrontation may feel tense or uncomfortable in the moment but it doesn’t have to turn into a screaming match. These honest discussions are vital to the long-term health and closeness of the relationship. Plus, stifling your emotions only works for so long — those icky feelings are bound to seep out one way or another.
“Sure, take the time you need before approaching [your friend],” Poswolsky said. “But when you’re ready, reach out and have the conversation. True friendship means repairing what isn’t working.”
4. You impose the expectations you have for yourself on to your friend.
You may have a lot in common with your friends but that doesn’t mean you’re always going to see eye-to-eye. You have different preferences, priorities and points of view and that’s perfectly healthy. Resist the temptation to tell your friend how to live their life based on what you would do.
“True friendship means repairing what isn’t working.”
– Adam Smiley Poswolsky, workplace belonging expert and author
“Your friends may want to live their lives differently than you do,” said psychologist and friendship expert Marisa G. Franco. “As a friend, you should guide them to live out their values and not yours. So, even if you think it’s a wild decision for them to quit their job and move to Italy, support them because it’s what they want.”
However, if you fear your friend is making a decision that could be legitimately harmful, it’s OK to voice your concerns.
“If you offer feedback, make sure you can answer affirmatively when you ask yourself: Is my feedback based on what’s best for my friend, rather than what I want for them?” Franco added.
5. You get competitive when things are going well for them.
Life sure has been treating your friend well as of late: They got a promotion at work, paid off a big chunk of their student loans and went on an Insta-worthy tropical vacation to boot. You want to be happy for their success, but inside you’re seething with envy — and it’s starting to show. When your pal mentions their new role or talks about the trip, you can’t help but pipe in with some brag about how you’re on track to get a huge raise, too, or gush about the luxe accommodations on the last vacation you took.
“It’s OK to consider what your friends are doing or accomplishing because that is human nature,” Yager said. “But you want to avoid being so competitive that you get labeled a ‘one-up’ kind of person. Friends should be cheering each other on and proud of each other’s accomplishments rather than jealous and envious.”
“Some envy is normal; it even shows you what you value and might want for yourself,” Yager continued. “But you want to avoid begrudging your friend their achievements.”
You can’t just get rid of your competitive streak in an instant, but you can lessen its intensity with practice. First, acknowledge and validate your own feelings; remember that envy is something all humans deal with from time to time. Do some gratitude exercises to help you zero in on the stuff you appreciate about your own life. Then use envy as a motivator to improve the parts of your own life you’re dissatisfied with.
“Channeled this way, envy is actually kind of adaptive; it’s a compass that can keep us on track, as long as we are willing to listen,” psychologist Miriam Kirmayer wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today.
6. You’re always waiting for your turn to speak instead of really listening.
Are you thinking about what you want to add to the conversation when you should be listening to what your friend is actually saying? Then you may need to sharpen your active listening skills.
“It’s normal to be excited to share something with your friend, but as a habit, it can cause strain in a relationship,” Poss said. “Your friend may feel resentful that you are not returning the close attention they give you.”
If they don’t feel heard, it may make them less likely to open up to you in the future. To improve your active listening skills, stay present (rather than formulating your response in your head), withhold interruptions, summarize what’s been said and show interest by asking follow-up questions.
Body language is also a key part of active listening. Turn toward your friend as they’re speaking, make eye contact and nod occasionally.
“You are signaling to your friend that you are in tune with them and paying attention,” Poss said. “Paying attention to your friends body language will also clue you in to how they are feeling and help you stay focused.”