4 Practices to Nurture the Gift of Friendship

December 6, 2015
Todd Hall

My son, who is in his first year of college, recently went on a short trip with a few of his high school friends. He was gone on his birthday, and so we missed seeing him on his birthday. But as I reflected on this, I realized that, while we missed him, I’m grateful that he has developed some close friendships—a group to which he belongs. This is a very special thing, and it is a gift—something you can’t force.

As I reflect on my friendships during this stage of life, I am reminded of friends from my childhood years. These are the people with whom my identity was forged as we played sports, built forts, argued and laughed together. I am blessed to have sustained a handful of close friendships from my high school and emerging adult years. These friends know me—my story, strengths and weaknesses—not just a persona of me that I may want to present to the world. We now share a history that goes back over two decades. Even with geographical separation and less contact during certain periods, we can pick up where we left off. We share values, interests and many experiences. We encourage each other and at times challenge each other. I can tell these friends anything and I know they will still be for me. These friendships sustain me in a very real way.

But friendships are a delicate thing. Over the years most of us have moved multiple times, and we’ve all started families and careers. The pressures of life have, at times, crowded out our connection. There were periods in which I let work trump friendships, and I now regret that. There are times you need to focus your attention on your work and family, but deep friendships require sustained nourishment over time.

With the pressures of building a career and, for some, raising a family, we often drift into becoming unintentional disconnectors when it comes to friendships.

In addition to these life stage factors that fragment our friendships, cultural forces over the past half century are fostering an increasing sense of social disconnection, which hinders friendships. Robert Putnam documented many of these forces in his landmark book, Bowling Alone. [1] One aspect is that, in contrast to thirty years ago, Americans are less likely now to have confidants with whom they discuss important matters. From 1985 to 2004, the number of people who reported not having anyone with whom to discuss important matters has tripled. [2] We are now less likely to have friends close enough to be confidants. Those who do have confidants tend to rely on a much smaller social network than in the past.

Emerging adults are coming of age in an era that is presenting significant challenges in developing friendships. In a New York Times article, Jennifer Silva captured this cultural moment poignantly.

Young working-class men and women…are… bouncing from one temporary job to the next; dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or fulfill their major requirements; relying on credit cards for medical emergencies; and avoiding romantic commitments because they can take care of only themselves. Increasingly disconnected from institutions of work, family, and community, they grow up by learning that counting on others will only hurt them in the end. Adulthood is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others. [3]

While Gen Xers drift into unintentional disconnection from friends, Millennials doubt they can develop friendships on which they can count.

Whether you are drifting or doubting, you need friendship to nurture your soul. And great work also requires some degree of friendship. True friendships are rare, but they can be nurtured. You can become an intentional connector in your friendships. Below, I outline 8 characteristics of friendship, followed by 4 practices to help you nurture true friendships.

8 Characteristics of Friendship 

1. Friendship is a gift. You can’t force it and you can’t predict it.

2. Friendship starts with companionship—doing something together—but goes beyond that to sharing an inward experience and mutual goal. Friendship is about the question, “Do you see the same truth?” [4]

3. Friends are vulnerable. They let you in to see behind the walls and personas.

4. Friends have your best interest at heart. They don’t let you down. In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says, “The mark of perfect friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” [4] Friends also challenge you when you need it, because they have your best interest at heart. They tell you what you need to hear; not just what you want to hear.

5. Friendship is the least “necessary” kind of love. Emerging adults spend a lot of time socializing with friends. They are forging their identity. It’s a normal part of the developmental stage. As we move into building a career, starting a family for some, and moving across country for that next career step, friendships, because they are the least “necessary,” often drift apart. But precisely because it’s the least necessary form of love, friendship love plays a special role in our well being.

6. Friendship is communal. CS Lewis points out that certain aspects of a friend can only be brought out by a third friend. Friends bring out a unique aspect of who we are. Relationships shape us and mold us, but they also activate parts of the self that can only be activated by relationships in general, and by specific people in our lives. A friendship of two is strengthened by more true friends in the community because the additional friends activate parts of the original two friends that we would not otherwise see.

7. Friends function as our “story holders.” They hold our story and help us to feel known and accepted. They also help us to know ourselves better as they connect dots in our lives where we don’t see the connections. When you know someone is holding your story, you feel like you don’t have to figure everything out, or resolve all your challenges at once. You can move on and come back to them because someone is holding it all for and with you.

8. Accomplishing great work requires friendship. There is a growing chorus of voices speaking to the myth that our work can be separated from our personal lives. Sure, there are distinctions, but think about any time you’ve been part of a team that accomplished something great. There are clear elements of friendship in working side by side with people to accomplish something larger than yourself. Perhaps a true team comes from companionship plus friendship; that is, working on a common task, but also having a common vision of the world and seeing the same truth in some important respect.

4 Practices to Nurture Your Friendships

1. Reach out to a friend and connect or re-connect. Don’t wait for the “right” time. Don’t wait until you have the “urgent” stuff checked off your to-do list. I recently re-connected with a friend who goes way back, but we had drifted apart. I realized there are very few people in the world who know me as well as he does and this is a gift that I can’t manufacture. So I called, we had coffee, and we had a great conversation. The connection was still there, just dormant. It needed to be nurtured.

2. Develop habits to nurture your friendships. Deep and lasting friendships require intentionality and effort. You have to put the work in to reach out and spend time. Think about how you can regularly make time to have meaningful contact with your close friends and structure this into your life. While not always possible, the more time you can spend in person the better. This will likely require giving up some things—that “extra” time to catch up at work, or down time to watch the game. But once you make the time and do this regularly you’ll feel the benefits of connection quickly. And when the sun is setting on your life, and you’re trying to see the meaning of it all, it's not the best time to start nurturing friendships (although it will still be helpful then). The best time to start is now. I get together with one of my closest friends every few weeks and our time together gives me a sense of vitality that I don’t get anywhere else. In addition to making time, reflect on the characteristics above and think of one way you can be a better friend, and then act on that.

3. Cultivate gratitude for your friendships. Set aside time regularly to reflect on the ways in which you’re grateful for your friends. When you do this, you become mindful that these friendships really are a gift. You were placed together somehow, and by some miracle, they saw the same truth as you, and said, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” [4] And when a miracle like that happens, you don’t take it for granted; you’re grateful for it, and you express your gratitude.

4. If you lead a team, have team members share their vision of how the team is contributing to various stakeholders and what it means to them. This will foster friendship as you work side by side. While some will share deeper ties, there may be some common truths around which everyone can connect. When this happens, it ignites something more powerful than mere shared activity. It ignites true teamwork in which everyone looks out for each other.

I hope these reflections help you nurture and value your friendships more. Don’t wait, reach out and connect to a friend today!


[1] Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster (2000).

[2] McPherson et al. “Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades.” American Sociological Review, 71 (2006): 353-75.

[3] Jennifer M. Silva. “Young and isolated.” New York Times, June 23, 2013. SR7.

[4] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. New York: Hartcourt (1960), 70, 65.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

3 Practices to Love Your Little Corner of the World, and Beyond

5 Mindset Shifts to Promote Connection

6 Research Backed Practices to Create a Connected Culture

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist at E Pluribus Partners/Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall’s work, read his blog and get his free E-Course “Lead with Connection” at drtoddhall.com. Follow Dr. Hall on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

You may also like

Join the conversation

5 Minutes to a Connection Culture

Get our free e-course