Cultivating a garden takes some dedication and skill, and friendships need this too.

One of the big improvements in my 50s and 60s has been more and better friendships.  These friendships oil the gearbox of life: lubricating changes and crises which could be overwhelming.  They also top the cake, through the pleasures of companionship and by appreciating good things about me which I often ignore. This may sound easy, but it hasn’t been for me.  I’ve had to learn by mistakes and the painful loss of some good friendships. So here are my top tips on cultivating friendship:

  • Be willing to experiment: trying a range of approaches with a variety of people increases your chances of success.
  • Realise that there are many kinds of friendships.  Be aware of the various kinds you would like, and try to sense early on what your potential friend wants.  For example, the level of openness and emotional sharing may vary hugely.  In many male friendships, all this is unspoken: remember Last of the Summer Wine.
  • Imagine a new friendship as a spiral process: don’t plunge in, but let it deepen gradually.  Listen for clues from your friend about the subjects they do and don’t want to talk about, and guide them on your preferences. 
  • Cultivate your listening skills: try to hear what your friend is saying, and respond to it.  Don’t get preoccupied with your own nerves and needs.  Listen for what’s not being said: many people struggle to express their feelings or ask for support, so listen for clues and make an offer, for example, “Would it help you to talk more about the divorce?”. 
  • Find the courage to make the first move.  In shifting from casual contact towards friendship, someone needs to take the initiative: Remember the other person may be even more shy than you are. 
  • Sometimes, especially for men, doing something together can be an easier start to a friendship than sitting and talking.  It could be quite simple, like going to a film, or having a walk.
  • As a friendship starts to build, if you want it to deepen, try talking openly with your friend about how it’s going and what you both want from it.  This kind of frankness doesn’t come easy in our culture, but it can help both of you to get what you need, and to learn as you go along. 
  • As you change, the kind of friends you want will change too.  If you want to move from friendship down to acquaintance, do it honestly: talk it through with your friend, hear their feelings, try to reach a point of completion and celebration for the friendship.  This will cause less pain than just stopping.