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12 Ways to Improve Your Relationships (and Build Deeper Connections)

by Silvia

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What do your doctor, your partner, and your gardener all have in common? There’s almost certainly at least one thing: you want them all to like you.

Wanting to be liked by others is pretty hard-wired into us. Our lives revolve around having strong bonds with people in our communities. In fact, science shows it not only improves our health, happiness, and wellbeing but is even necessary for our survival! So these are all pretty compelling reasons to develop close relationships with people around us. 

But the real question is, how? Well, science has the answer, and we’re here to break it down for you into easy-to-follow tips.

How to improve your relationships

Here are 12 science-backed ways to create deep connections with others, whether it’s a family member, friend, partner, colleague, or even just a random person at the bus stop. 

1. Show them you like them

If you show someone you like them, they will naturally like you more too

This should be pretty straightforward since you probably only want to form a deep connection with someone you like anyways.

You can show interest and appreciation for someone in a number of ways:

  • Smile at them.
  • Look them in the eye.
  • Use physical touch where appropriate.
  • Be friendly and cheerful while talking to them.
  • Tell them what you appreciate about them.
  • Show interest in getting to know them.
  • Give them compliments (especially related to personality or character).

2. Highlight your similarities

If you’re wondering what to talk about to get closer to someone, this tip will give you an easy guideline. 

There’s a reason for the age-old adage “Birds of a feather flock together”. Research has proven that we tend to like people who are similar to us. 

Another study shows this is especially important when you are trying to get closer to someone you don’t know yet. 

One of the authors explains: 

Picture two strangers striking up a conversation on a plane or a couple on a blind date. From the very first moments of awkward banter, how similar the two people are is immediately and powerfully playing a role in future interactions. Will they connect? Or walk away? Those early recognitions of similarity are really consequential in that decision.

The study also notes that friends don’t usually change each other. So having similarities is also what keeps you bonded with others. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should change who you are or lie about your beliefs to make more friends. But focus on discussing similarities, and you’ll be able to develop a much closer relationship with someone. 

These can include:

  • Life experiences like your hometown, education, or travel.
  • Preferences for food, music, or movies.
  • Hobbies and how you spend your time.
  • Opinions about other people and things.
  • Core values and beliefs about vegetarianism, religion, or politics.
  • Goals for the future.

You can also try adapting to their conversation style while talking to them. If they’re talking a mile a minute in a very exciting way, try being more enthusiastic too to make you two feel more similar. 

3. Find mild negative or strong positive opinions in common

If you’re looking to get closer with someone you barely know, here’s a great way to get started.

As we’ve already seen above, we are drawn to people who have similar opinions as we do. But it turns out that some shared opinions are much more meaningful than others. 

Negative opinions

A study has found that people remember negative opinions they share with their friends much more than positive ones. What’s more, if you and a stranger find out you both don’t like someone, you’ll feel much closer to the stranger than if you found out you shared a positive opinion. 

So it seems that sharing negative opinions is what creates bonds between people. This is a powerful finding, but of course, it has a glaringly obvious downside: it opens the floodgates to negativity and criticism of others. The authors themselves note that this kind of gossip can be very hurtful for both the person doing it and the person being talked about. 

What should we do then?

Thankfully, another finding offers a good solution. 

Mild negative and strong positive or negative opinions

The researchers compared shared opinions based on their strength and positivity, and here’s what they found:

  • Sharing a weak negative opinion: brought strangers closer.
  • Sharing a weak positive opinion: no significant effect.
  • Sharing a strong negative opinion: brought strangers closer.
  • Sharing a strong positive opinion: brought strangers closer.

In other words, if the shared opinion is strong, a positive one will have the same effect to make your relationships stronger.

However, people may be reluctant to share their strong opinions early on in a relationship. 

So here’s what you can do: start by sharing weak opinions to “test the waters” and find a few negative ones in common. This will help you start to form a deeper connection with someone. Then, when you reach a stage where you are both comfortable sharing more, focus more on strong positive opinions instead. 

4. Laugh together

Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”

But is it always so? We’ve all experienced having someone laugh at a mistake we made, or at a comedian we find offensive. Naturally, this doesn’t particularly bring out many warm and fuzzy feelings.

Indeed, here’s what research has found about laughter as a social glue: 

  1. All genuine laughter makes us feel good.
  2. But only shared laughter makes us feel closer to others.

As the authors explain, when we both laugh at the same thing, we’re communicating to each other that we have a similar worldview. This boosts our sense of connection and strengthens our relationship. 

Another researcher notes that shared laughter is especially good for keeping a relationship strong before having difficult or conflict-prone conversations. 

In short, the more you laugh together, the more you can develop a closer relationship with someone. So don’t be afraid to tap into your sense of humor. But if you’re not too good with jokes? Watching a funny movie or showing them a humorous meme are great activities to strengthen a relationship. Or read this article of ours about how to make someone else happy and smiling.

5. Take turns sharing more about yourselves

Do you have any friends who know nearly nothing about you?

Of course not: sharing things about yourself is exactly how you get to know someone and form a deep connection.

Research has shown that people who mutually share things about themselves:

  • Like each other more.
  • Feel closer to each other.
  • Feel more similar.
  • Enjoy the interactions more.

You will inevitably share personal information as you become closer to others. But how you do this can have a big influence on how, and how quickly, this bond gets created. Here are four important tips. 

1. Take short turns 

Sharing information about yourself best helps you bond with someone if you take turns. In other words, if you have a long monologue where you share a lot of things about yourself, then the other person does the same thing, it won’t make you feel as close as when you take short turns sharing in an active discussion. 

In other words, you need to be a good listener as well!

This has important implications for online dating websites, where people sometimes share a lot about themselves in a long message, then wait several hours for the other person to reciprocate. The study authors note it may be better to save getting to know each other better for a face-to-face meeting, phone call, or even instant messages. 

2. Keep it mutual

For two people to bond, both of them need to share personal information. 

This means shy or socially anxious people may need to make a special effort. Research shows they often fail to reciprocate when others share personal information. Unfortunately, this makes the other person feel less desire to talk to them again. 

One strategy these shy or socially anxious people often use is to ask the other person more questions. This takes the attention off themselves, but it also further exacerbates the imbalance of sharing personal details. For this reason, you should avoid this tactic if you want to build a close relationship with someone. 

3. Gradually build in intensity

Are you trying to form a deep connection with someone new? It’s important to start this sharing process right from the first interactions. 

But of course, there is such a thing as “TMI”. Sharing too much too early can bring a developing relationship to a sudden halt. What constitutes TMI exactly? That depends on the type of relationship, the location of the interaction, and the level of intimacy.

In the early stages, people are naturally more hesitant to divulge personal information. As you get to know someone better, they become more and more open with each other. And the closer your bond with someone is, the deeper your disclosures tend to be. This is a powerful way to keep a relationship strong.

4. Start sharing to make the other person share more too

You might find yourself face to face with someone who isn’t sharing about themselves at all.

In that case, go ahead and take the first step. 

A researcher explains that this creates pressure on the other person to share something in return:

When someone shares something intimate, it creates a sort of imbalance. You suddenly know a great deal about this other person, but they might not know as much about you. In order to even out this perceived inequity, you might choose to share something that will help even out the levels of shared information between you and the other individual.

But even if they don’t, the fact that you shared something with them will at least make them like you more.

Why? Well, if you share something with a person, it implies you like them. This makes them trust you, like you more, and as a result more likely to share things with you in the future. 

6. Be responsive in conversations

Listening is a crucial tool when you want to bond deeply with someone. 

But don’t be fooled: this doesn’t mean being silent the whole time. Use these three tips to maximize your response in a conversation to bond with others. 

1. Be an active listener

A study compared three forms of feedback during a conversation:

  1. Simple acknowledgments such as “I see”, “OK”, and “that makes sense”.
  2. Active listening.
  3. Giving advice.

You might have already guessed that active listening made people feel the most understood. This conversation tactic includes three key elements: 

  1. Showing nonverbal involvement, such as nodding, appropriate facial expressions, and body language that shows you’re paying attention.
  2. Paraphrasing the speaker’s message with phrases like “What I’m hearing you say is…”.
  3. Asking questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate more on their thoughts and feelings.

This kind of response shows unconditional regard and confirms the other person’s experience without judgment. As a result, active listeners are seen as more:

  • Trustworthy.
  • Friendly.
  • Understanding.
  • Socially attractive.
  • Empathetic.

All excellent qualities to help you get closer to someone. 

2. Give some helpful advice

It might surprise you to hear that giving advice is also helpful to become closer with others. 

Many people say you shouldn’t give advice because it places focus on you rather than the speaker’s experience. But the study above found that both active listening and giving advice had these same benefits over simple acknowledgments:

  • People felt more satisfied with the conversation.
  • They considered the active listener or advice-giver to be more socially attractive.

The takeaway? It seems the key to forming a deeper connection in a conversation is to show high responsiveness. Be sure to use the active listening strategies, but if you think of a helpful suggestion, don’t be afraid to share it too. 

3. Ask follow-up questions

If you’re not sure what to say, try asking something instead. 

A study found a clear relationship between asking follow-up questions and being liked by the conversation partner. 

And if you’re not sure what to ask either? Try some of these suggestions. 

  • What exactly do you mean by…?
  • And what happened before that / next?
  • What were you feeling at that moment?
  • What were your thoughts when that happened?
  • What were you thinking of doing?
  • Did you have a feeling about what would happen next?

Alternatively, you can also use a tactic suggested by former FBI negotiator Chris Voss in Never Split The Difference. Simply repeat a few words the person said in question form. They will naturally elaborate a bit more on them. 

7. Eat the same food with them

Want to bond with someone, but hunger has hit? 

This is actually a golden opportunity. Eating the same food with someone else helps you build a deeper connection with them. This was found to be especially helpful in boosting trust and cooperation during negotiations and business-related meals.

One researcher explains why: 

Food is about bringing something into the body. And to eat the same food suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they do. And then trust, cooperation, these are just consequences of feeling close to someone.

Another study confirms this finding and points out a few ways to boost these positive effects:

  • Eating with someone in the evening brings you closer than eating at midday.
  • Eating with a larger group of people makes you feel closer to them than with a smaller group.
  • Laughing and drinking alcohol during the meal especially help to bring people closer.

8. Spend more time with them

We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day, but do you know how long it takes to become close friends with someone?

Science has found the answer. 

According to a study, this is the amount of time it takes to develop various levels of friendship: 

  • Casual friend: at least 30 hours.
  • Friend: at least 50 hours.
  • Good friend: at least 140 hours.
  • Best friend: at least 300 hours.

Note that this is the very minimum amount of time needed, as found by the study. It can be significantly more for some people. But in any case, it’s clear that the more time you spend with someone, the deeper bond you can create with them. 

There’s one more thing that seems to matter a lot: how soon after the first meeting you spend this time together.

The authors note: 

These results in conjunction with past research suggest that it takes somewhere between 40 hr and 60 hr to form a casual friendship in the first 6 weeks after meeting. After 3 months, acquaintances may continue to accumulate hours together, but this time does not appear to increase the chance of becoming casual friends.

Of course, this is a significant investment. How do you keep a bond strong if you don’t have so much time on your hands? 

The second part of the study has great news for all the busy folks out there. Keeping up to date with friends’ daily lives by catching up and joking around can be even more effective to keep a strong bond than the number of hours spent together. 

9. Ask for a small favor or do one yourself

Did you know there are six magic words that can help you bond deeply with someone?

They are: “Can you do me a favor?”

You might have heard of this tactic as the Benjamin Franklin Effect. In his autobiography, Franklin describes how he turned a hostile rival legislator into a good friend. He wrote to him, asking to borrow a rare book for a few days. When he returned it, he included a letter thanking him profusely. The next time they met, the man was much kinder to Franklin and even willing to help him in other things. Eventually, they developed a close bond. 

There’s a scientific explanation for this: we generally do favors for people who we like.

So what happens if you find yourself having to help someone you don’t like? Your actions will suddenly be in conflict with your feelings. To balance out this dissonance, you will subconsciously increase your liking of the person. 

This can be a good start to improving the quality of relationships that have gone a bit sour. But if the thought of asking for a favor makes you uncomfortable, rest assured it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. Research has found small favors create the same increase in liking as big ones. You could even just ask them to pass the salt, and go from there. 

But you can also start by doing them a favor yourself. This too can increase their positive feelings towards you. So you can use both help given and help asked for to strengthen your relationships with friends, family, colleagues, or even enemies. 

10. Do an activity where you both pay attention to the same thing

Not really in a talking mood? No problem. A study shows how you can still get closer to someone without saying a single word. 

Participants who paid attention to stimuli on the same half of a computer screen reported feeling more bonded, even though they weren’t allowed to talk, and had separate goals and tasks. So what made their bond then? Simply paying attention to the same thing. 

These results suggest that even things like watching a movie or listening to music together can make you form a deeper connection with someone.

(And you don’t even need to discuss the movie or music! Though of course, you can take the opportunity to share similar opinions.)

But of course, there are many other activities that imply shared attention:

  • Group fitness classes.
  • Go running together.
  • Watch a movie, show, or TV series.
  • Listen to music.
  • Look at photos.
  • Watching a live performance or sports game.
  • Read the same newspaper, magazine, or book.
  • Look at the same items in a museum.
  • Attend a class, conference, or lecture.
  • Play a card or board game.
  • Work on solving a puzzle or problem together.

These are all great activities to bond with friends, but also great ways to get closer to someone you barely know. 

11. Share an experience with the same emotions

It makes sense that the more experiences you share with a person, the more you bond deeply with them. 

But there’s a little more to it than that. Use these three tips to create experiences that help you get closer to someone as a friend or partner. 

1. Choose experiences that give you the same emotions and impressions

A study had participants watch TV shows together. The participants who felt most connected to each other were the ones who:

  • Showed similar emotional reactions at the same time.
  • Had similar impressions of the characters.

Basically, the more you share the same impressions and opinions about the experience, the closer you can become. So plan activities that you know you have similar opinions and feelings about. 

2. Go through difficult or painful experiences together

Interestingly, this principle works even more for painful experiences. People who had to do painful tasks together felt much more bonded afterward than those who did painless activities. This explains in part what creates bonds between people who experienced a natural disaster or were in the military together. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to find ways to suffer together! But if you have the opportunity to do an intense fitness class, a long day of volunteering, or a difficult task together, you might come out with a much stronger connection for it. 

3. Talk about your individual experiences in a very relatable way

If sharing experiences helps you bond with someone, you might ask what happens when you have unusual experiences on your own.

As a study shows, they actually alienate you from others. 

The researchers explain

Extraordinary experiences are both different from and better than the experiences that most other people have, and being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity.

This was surprising even to study participants, who thought that having a special experience alone would be much more enjoyable than having a boring one in a group. In practice, however, the extraordinary experience made them have little in common with the other people. Ultimately, this made them feel left out. 

The study authors speculate that the joy of an extraordinary experience might fade quickly, but the sting of not fitting in might last some time. 

So does this mean you can’t do anything special if you want to develop a deep bond with others around you? Of course not. Simply talk about the experience with them in relatable terms. Share any difficulties you went through and the “behind the scenes” rather than just the social-media-worthy highlights.

12. Give them an experience as a gift

Does someone you know have a special occasion coming up? Choose your gift wisely, because this is another hidden opportunity to form a deeper connection with them. 

A study found that experiential gifts strengthen the relationship between gift giver and receiver much more than material gifts. This is true regardless of whether they “experience” the gift together or not. 

The authors explain that both material and experiential gifts create positive emotions when received. But experiential gifts give the recipient much stronger emotions when they are lived through, too. These added emotions help strengthen their bond with the person who gave the gift. 

This serves as a very useful gift-giving guide if you want to build a close relationship with someone. Here are some ideas for experiences as gifts:

  • An activity membership like a fitness class, wine club, or language course.
  • A vacation or fun activity, like sailing, horseback riding, or rock climbing.
  • A ticket to a concert, cultural event, or sports game.
  • A DIY kit for making their own art, pottery, or candles.
  • A board game, or conversation game cards.
  • A session with a life coach, gifted advisor, or massage therapist.

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Wrapping up

With these 12 research-backed tips, you have everything you need to bond with anyone you want. Your neighbor? Your hairdresser? The car-wash assistant? They could all be your next close friend. You can play around with combining several of these tips into one. For example, how about a funny movie night where you share the same snacks, then discuss opinions you have in common about the movie while listening actively?

What’s your favorite way to improve your relationships? I’d love to hear from your experiences in the comments below!

Silvia Adamyova AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Born in Slovakia, raised in Canada. Online English teacher, editor, copywriter, and translator. You’ll find me holed up in a bookstore, typing in a cafe, or immersed in a philosophical debate.

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