THE BLOG
03/29/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2017

What If You Never Learned to Form Healthy Friendships? Here's Where to Start

You've probably been engaging in friendship -- in one form or another -- since you could walk and talk. But how do you know if the social habits you've been employing for decades are the ones that lead to the most satisfying friendships? How can you be sure there aren't other practices and patterns that could improve your support system and sense of social connection? At least for one reader of last week's interview with fellow author Shasta Nelson, these are the types of questions that surfaced.

I think a lot of people get to adulthood and realize they didn't get the social skills they needed to be successful, the reader wrote. But then how do they learn them at that point? It seems too late because a lot of relating to other people is learned hands on in your younger years. Can someone reprogram themselves and change their behaviors later in life?

Since Shasta and I share a passion for friendship and collaboration, we were eager to share some of the insights we've found that may help someone who wants to work on their social skills.

You can check out both of our replies, based on our collective research and writings, below:

Sarah: Great question. And I think it's one that many people wonder about.

There are many reasons why adults might need or want to brush up on their social skills. They could just want to further develop themselves, as you've suggested, or perhaps they've changed jobs or moved to a new city and need to build a new support system.

I am FIRMLY convinced adults can acquire new social skills and habits even later in life. While it will be helpful if the adult in question is willing to get involved in their community (think clubs, local events, fitness classes etc.), simply showing up in public spaces isn't enough on its own. When participating in these activities it is important to also actively demonstrate that you're a non-threatening and friendly person who is (and this is the important part) available for friendship.

You're way more likely to find friends if people know you're open to friendship!

A good starting point would be to engage new acquaintances in small talk centered on social activities. For example, you might ask someone what their favorite restaurant in town is or inquire about what they did last weekend. These sorts of questions often create natural, low-risk openings to suggest, "We should get together sometime." If the new acquaintance responds warmly to the idea, it gives you an easy way to follow up with an invite next time you see them. Perhaps, for example, you might suggest you both check out their favorite restaurant together.

One more thing: It's important to go into these sorts of conversations with a resilient attitude. If someone declines the invitation, don't take it personally! Continue to assess your interactions with them, and if they warmly engage you, that's your cue to throw out a second invite sometime down the road. And don't forget: the club, gym, or church is probably full of other people to meet in the meantime!

Meeting new people and establishing a connection is just the beginning of course. There are lots of other insights out there! Two books that someone in this scenario might find helpful are MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche and The Friendship Fix by by Andrea Bonior.

Shasta: What a great question -- it shows such an openness on your part. And I absolutely agree with Sarah: the skills can be learned!

I repeatedly hear more women asking this question and certainly we're starting to see that with an increase of social interaction on technology that many studies are starting to show the impact of having less face-to-face practice as we grow up; which might mean less practice at developing empathy, smiling and making eye contact, or having live conversations. Add to that the fact that some of us can feel shy or experience social anxiety, and it makes sense that we don't all feel overly confident in meeting people, engaging in friendliness, and eventually doing the actions that can develop a deep friendship.

My advice: practice! Yes it will feel uncomfortable, yes it will feel awkward, yes it will feel vulnerable. I often equate it with going to the gym where we know that in order to get in better shape we will have to work our way up to it, sweating and breathing hard most of the way there. For our social engagement muscles to get stronger, we have to use them repeatedly. Or another way of thinking about it is Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour" theory where he illustrates in Outliers that excellence and success have less to do with natural born talent and more to do with putting in the 10,000 hours of practice that transforms into high performance. If, as kids, we didn't log the hours, we still can now!

So be gentle on yourself as you practice incrementally! The first and most important skill to learn in making friends is figuring out how to add positivity to our relationships. I talk about it in both of my books Friendships Don't Just Happen! (which is about making new friends) and Frientimacy (which is about deepening friendships) because every relationship is fueled by it feeling rewarding or satisfying to be with the other person. Easy and appropriate ways to practice positivity with new friends might be smiling, affirming, laughing, showing curiosity and asking questions, and expressing gratitude. I personally find I'm less nervous when I can focus more on how I hope I can help make the other person feel rather than worry about how I feel or what they think of me. If they walk away feeling happier, chances are high they'll look forward to connecting with us next time!

Best of luck to you! It is so worth the effort of practicing, I promise!

Do you have a question or something that's been bugging you about friendship? Would you like to know how Shasta and Sarah's research applies to your situation? Feel free to leave us a comment or question below. We'd love to talk more!