4 Science-Backed Ways to Build Connections With Others

Riley Blue

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I had a sheltered childhood, spending ten years in a single school. And then, two years before I was supposed to graduate, my parents moved me to a new school in a different city — several kilometres away from home. It was my first time staying in a hostel and I was homesick. Add to that the fact that the rest of the students had known each other for years, and it was extremely difficult to make friends.

I spent the first year confined to my room, barely talking to anyone. But with time, I picked up a few communication skills and managed to connect with others. As a result, I built some relationships that have lasted till today. This post discusses four habits that can make you more likable and build connections with others. I’ve also laid down some science-backed ways on how you can apply these habits to your life.

1. The First Few Minutes Count.

Researchers have found that most people make decisions about others within seconds to minutes of first seeing them. Even if we know nothing about them, our brains are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way. This makes it all the more important to leave a lasting first impression.

When I first started the new school, I was living in a shell of my own. I had no idea how to make a good first impression, and this led to me living a largely isolated life in my first year. However, with time I understood that if I didn’t take initiative and waited for things to run their course, I’d have to get accustomed to being a loner. Sure, I was shy, but I wasn’t prepared to let this be my identity.

And so, when I went to college and later joined a job, I took great care in making a good first impression. I tried my best to appear confident, to be genuinely interested in hearing what the other people have to say, in remembering their names, and politely asserting my point without being overly pushy. This helped, and I didn’t face too much trouble making friends in the later stages of my life.

How you can do this

Work on yourself first. When you are the best version of yourself, people will naturally be drawn to you. Meeting new people can be daunting, but if you exude confidence, you’ll be more likely to forge lasting connections. As this post by Forbes suggests, these steps can help you make a good first impression:

  • Show confidence in your body language.
  • Speak clearly and with an even tone. You don’t want to be too loud or too quiet, as you could come across as dominating or shy.
  • Put your phone away while talking to people. Being on your phone equals rudeness in most professional settings.
  • Know the appropriate way to dress so you won’t be underdressed or overdressed.
  • Be on time. Being late always equals a bad first impression and is one of the hardest mistakes to recover from. When in doubt, show up early.
If you wait for people to come and talk to you, you’ll probably never be able to make friends.

2. Make It Worth Their Time.

In her book, Persuasion, Jane Austen makes a compelling case about what good company is:

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”

One lesson I learned in early teenage is this: nobody wants to be friends with you unless you have something valuable to offer. I was too young to process the information back then, but I understood that if I could talk to a person long enough for them to stick with me for longer than a few minutes, I’d probably make them want to stay back and talk. This would increase our chances to interact with each other in the future and I could end up with some friends.

As an adult, I still stand by this lesson. You need to offer something to people for them to want to talk to you. This can be your ability to make them laugh, hold the conversation together, or the penchant of quoting quaint movies ad verbatim.

How you can do this

As researchers suggest, a good conversation requires balance — between simplicity and detail; staying on topic and changing it; asking questions and answering them. According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, here are some steps to become a better conversationalist:

  • Don’t be too focused on what you should say next, and listen to what the other person is saying.
  • Look for obvious cues as conversation jumping-off points. Unusual or particularly artistic jewelry or clothing are effective conversation-starters.
  • Stay on top of the news, and store some of it away so that you can chat about it later.
  • Be authentic and avoid making judgments.
  • Be careful about making jokes that will be perceived as insensitive.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. A quiet interlude is quite natural in conversations.
  • Note whether the other person would like to break off the conversation.
Occasionally talking about yourself doesn’t necessarily have to mean you’ll end up alienating everyone else.

3. Don’t Expect. Don’t Compare.

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
— Alexander Pope

The sooner you learn to expect nothing from others, the better off you’ll be. Understand that other people don’t owe you friendship or kindness. If you want it, you’ll have to work for it. According to Psychology Today, there are several benefits of deciding and acting without expectations:

  • You take sole responsibility for your decisions.
  • You separate your wants from shoulds.
  • You avoid feeling disappointed, angry, etc.
  • As expectations forever push you to look ahead, by avoiding them, you live in the present.

Similarly, comparing does no one any good. If you arrive in a new place surrounded by new people, and you constantly keep comparing them with the people and situations of your past, you’ll never be able to move ahead. You’ll forever be stuck in the trap of how golden the past was, and this will prevent you from appreciating the beauty of your present.

I learned these lessons the hard way in my first experience of living in a boarding school. I expected the new students would talk to me just as freely as my old friends did. I kept comparing the new school with my previous one and was constantly disappointed. This was a major reason why I wasn’t proactively seeking to make new friends. Thankfully, I learned the lesson later and started taking initiative to seek out like-minded people to be friends with.

How you can do this

As Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Liberationist, suggests, here are the ways you can stop expecting from others and be proactive towards making friends:

  • Accept yourself fully — flaws and all. Research suggests that acts of self-compassion releases oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone, responsible for making you feel comforted, calm, and connected.
  • You cannot control what others think about you, but you can choose how you talk to yourself. Adjust your inner dialogue to push you up rather than pull you down.
  • Stop judging people for who they are. Such judgment only adds frustration and negativity.
  • Above all, be proactive in approaching others. If you wait for people to come and talk to you, you’ll probably never be able to make friends. Be confident and kind to yourself, show the other person you care for them, and speak up.
Nobody wants to be friends with you unless you have something valuable to offer.

4. Don’t Show Off.

No one likes a show-off. It’s only ironic that most of us like to talk about ourselves. A big mistake I made in my new school was that I constantly kept bragging about how different my old school was and why it was better in so many ways. Needless to say, I must have come across as a show-off, only pushing my new classmates away.

I don’t do that these days. As I grew older, I learned that it’s better to let your achievements speak for yourself. However, occasionally talking about yourself doesn’t necessarily have to mean you’ll end up alienating everyone else. There are some science-backed ways in which you can go about doing this.

How you can do this

A 2012 study by Susan Speer from the University of Manchester highlights the ways to brag that are considered reasonably acceptable. They are:

  • Indirectly drawing attention to your own personal qualities by attributing praise to someone else. For example, instead of saying you’re great at football, you can mention that a mutual friend keeps praising you for your football skills.
  • Indirectly drawing attention to something you’ve done. When you’re bragging about something you’ve done and not a personal quality, you can talk about the incidents or events that act as proof of your accomplishment. If done subtly, your friends might mistake this for modesty.
  • Drawing attention to your success with a “disclaimer.” Simple statements like “I shouldn’t brag, but…” or “I shouldn’t blow my own trumpet but …” before talking about an achievement helps the other people accept the incident as an honest expression of your well-deserved satisfaction.
  • Basking in someone else’s reflected glory. This is the type of bragging where you attempt to impress others by showing what someone close to you has accomplished.
  • Reporting on a conversation in which you were praised where the evidence can be verified.
A good conversation requires balance — between simplicity and detail; staying on topic and changing it; asking questions and answering them.

Final Words

Building connections and making friends is hard, and especially as an adult, it can get even more difficult. However, if you apply these four steps, you can be more likable and build connections easily:

  1. Make a good first impression by exuding confidence and being authentic.
  2. Be a good conversationalist by being genuinely interested in hearing what the other person has to say and understanding your own shortcomings.
  3. Don’t expect anything from others. Instead, make the first move and be proactive towards building friendships from scratch.
  4. Don’t show off. If you absolutely have to, do it in a way that doesn’t make you come across as obnoxious.

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