The Friendship Challenge
Discover strategies for meeting new friends and deepening current friendships.
Remember your college days? You may have been blessed with a close group of buddies straight out of the TV series Friends. Do you look around now, however, and notice that you don’t have as many friends as you used to or as you’d like? The bad news is that friends may come and go throughout your life. The good news is that by making a focused effort, you can gain new friends or build stronger ties with acquaintances.
Did you know that in 2004 “the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985,” according to a study in the American Sociological Review (USA Today 2006)? In addition, the survey disclosed that “the number of people who said they had no such confidant soared from 10% in 1985 to nearly 25% in 2004; an additional 19% said they had only one confidant—often their spouse.”
While you, like most fitness professionals, are probably very social, you may find that the number of your close friends who live nearby is dwindling. Perhaps your life circumstances—or those of your friends—have changed: You’ve moved, married, divorced, had children, changed jobs or become an entrepreneur. These changes may mean that you’ve drifted apart from friends, either because you have less in common with them or simply because it’s not as convenient to stay friends.
You may not even consciously know that you want more friends. “Sometimes you don’t even realize what’s missing,” says Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale 2004). “The only symptom of a friend shortage may be low-level doldrums, a shadowy malaise that you can’t quite identify.”
If you want to develop more friendships, what can you do? “Making new friends is a challenge for most people, because it means having to reach out to other people when you aren’t certain what their response to you will be,” says Mary Bratcher, MA, life coach and co-owner of The BioMechanics, in San Diego. “This fact can often bring up feelings of insecurity which prevent us from taking any action that would enable us to meet new people. Therefore, the best thing you can do in an effort to make new friends is to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. For example, if you are the kind of person who usually waits until people come up to you and start talking, take the first step and introduce yourself to someone. Or if you tend to decline invitations to work or social gatherings, start choosing to go occasionally. The key is to break out of your usual routine. Doing so will open up new possibilities for meeting people and developing friendships.”
In Penn Valley, California, Theresa Merz—senior master trainer for YogaFit International Training Systems and certified group fitness instructor—believes in this approach as well. “When I go to a party or see someone on the street, I [always] say ‘hi,’” she says. “It used to hurt my feelings when they did not answer or respond back with a ‘hi.’ But through fitness and yoga, I have learned that we are who we are. The self-confidence/self- esteem [I’ve gained from these forms of exercise is so] beneficial. Now I can freely meet the eyes of strangers and give them a smile without wanting anything back.”
If you’re ready to take a risk and reach out to new friends, here are some ways to find them:
Look Where You Already Are. Where do you go on a regular basis? The gym? Supermarket? Coffeehouse? Park? Beach? School? Track? Make it a point to see who’s there. Is there anyone you haven’t noticed before who looks approachable for a casual conversation?
When you go to IDEA conventions, do you actively make an effort to connect with fellow fitness pros? Try approaching new people while riding on the escalator, walking between classes, dancing at the Welcome Party or shopping at the expo. Look for people who live in your area. With exercise as a natural shared interest, it can be easy to strike up a conversation.
Branch Out. Get out of your rut and go to different stores, running paths, basketball courts, libraries, restaurants, etc. Maybe you’ll find a new acquaintance with friendship potential. If not, you’ll have shaken up your routine and added variety to your life.
Take Classes or Join New Clubs. Consider taking classes or workshops for business or pleasure. It’s natural to talk about the given topic, and this may lead to a new friendship. Alternatively, see if your area has any in-person or online clubs that appeal to you.
Give to Your Community. Do you serve on any boards or committees? Volunteering can be a fabulous way to make friends. “Through community service, I meet the nicest people who share the same values as me,” says Bonnie Berk, RN, MS, RYT, of Bonnie Berk Inc. in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “When people work together to serve the good of the community, the connections become very strong. When we give to others, it comes back to us in a positive way. When we feel good about ourselves, we are more readily able to form new relationships and sustain the ones we already have. Regardless of whether I am cleaning a park, working at the food bank or ringing the bell for The Salvation Army at Christmastime, I am always reminded of the power of service above self.”
Another approach to making friends is to ask for what you want. You know that putting out the word that you are looking for a new job can help you get one; in the same way, letting friends know that you’d love to meet new people can prove helpful to your search. It may feel awkward to say you’d like more friends, but go ahead and take a risk!
Ask for a Setup. It’s likely that your current friends or fitness co-workers know people who could become good friends with you. In The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections (St. Martin’s 2006), authors Roger Horchow and Sally Horchow recommend asking for a friendship setup. “To avoid the potential awkwardness of a first meeting, ask an established friend of yours—whose taste and opinion you trust—to invite both you and a potential friend to a social event,” advise the Horchows.
Throw a Party. Even better than asking for a setup, in the opinion of the Horchows, is hosting a party and asking guests to bring someone you don’t know. “This automatically expands [the] social circle for you and everyone else, too,” say the Horchows.
Place a Classified Ad. While you may know people who have used online services to meet romantic partners, you can also use websites to find new acquaintances—who may turn into friends. Craigslist.org, for example, offers free local classifieds (such as “strictly platonic” listings) and forums for 450 cities worldwide.
How do you grow acquaintances into closer friends? “Sometimes meeting new people that you would like to become friends with isn’t an issue,” says Bratcher. “The problem is getting the relationship to progress past the point of occasional run-ins or weekly meetings. Again, by taking a look at your typical behavior in these situations and choosing to do something different, you can turn acquaintances into friends. For example, if you normally wait to see if other people have a suggestion about doing activities or going out somewhere, pipe up and suggest something first. This lets people know you are interested in spending more time with them. Try to suggest things that would be of mutual interest. Don’t feel pressure to have the greatest plan ever. A simple invitation for a meal, beverage or walk will do. And keep asking! The idea behind strengthening connections is to gradually increase the number of times you see or speak to someone. The more times you talk to or see someone, the more comfortable you become in each other’s presence. Insecurities on both sides begin to melt away, and you can get to know more about the other person. That is the best way to deepen and maintain friendships.”
The Horchows suggest “peeling back the onion” to deepen friendships. “Once you’ve met a person and engaged in enough small talk to know you’d like to get to know him or her better, your conversation needs to develop beyond the superficial,” they say. “Try revealing something about yourself in order to make that person feel comfortable about opening up to you.”
Reaching out to new people may feel uncomfortable to you, especially if you haven’t done it in a while. Plus, every new acquaintance will not turn into a lasting friend. But if you put some effort into making friends, you will likely be rewarded with deep, long-term friendships that will make that effort worthwhile.
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