When the topic of friendship comes up, people debate whether or not there are actual “rules” involved in personal relationships.
The short answer is, yes, there are most certainly rules.
When you’re friends with someone, your relationship becomes more complicated, not less. You may argue that hanging out with a good friend is effortless, but spending time together isn’t where the rules of friendship come into play.
The rules become important when you’re asking your friend for a favor — or vice-versa.
If you’re requesting something that’s burdensome or questionable, it will test your friendship in a way that can have real consequences.
And relationships in the business world can quickly get complicated, where transactions are a normal part of life. It can be difficult to navigate those waters and understand when and how your friendship will be affected.
You can save yourself a lot of stress by following a few simple guidelines:
1. Understand the relationship.
First, consider if you’re really friends outside of a specific business context.
There have been times when I ended up having a very friendly relationship with someone I was working with. But when I asked them to do something outside of work, they politely declined or put it off indefinitely. That’s a sign they weren’t willing to extend that relationship beyond work.
The difference between a friendship and a business relationship can be quite significant when it comes to your interactions.
For instance, if you don’t return a business contact’s phone call — let’s say a vendor you don’t know at all — that person will probably shrug it off. They’ll just assume you’re busy.
But if you don’t return a friend’s phone call, all sorts of emotions get involved. Why are you blowing them off? How will they feel? What will you need to do to remedy the situation?
If you want to make business friendships work, figure out if it really is a friendship. If so, then know your relationship requires an extra level of consideration and care — just like any of your other friendships.
2. Assess a request before asking your friend to fulfill it.
Personally, I try to honor every request I receive from a friend.
I may not always be able to, but my instinct is to follow through. And if I can’t, it lingers with me. I’ll be bothered by it for ages. And I imagine that’s how most people feel. What’s the point in having friends if they can’t help you when you really need it?
Still, you have to consider the impact a favor has on your friend. They’ll naturally want to help you, so you have to think about what kind of burden it’s going to place on them.
For example, let’s say you’re a smart, hard-working individual who happens to be looking for a new job. You have a friend who works in your industry, and you know they have a lot of connections. So, you ask them for some introductions or recommendations. Given what they know about you, this should be an easy request to fulfill. They’ll probably even feel good about being able to connect you to their network.
Now, imagine you’re on the job hunt, but you don’t work in your friend’s industry. You want to make the leap into it, but it will be difficult. There’s no certainty that it will work out. Still, you ask them to use their network to help you find a position. In this situation, you’re actually putting a lot of pressure on your friend and your relationship.
They want to help you out, but your lack of industry experience complicates things. By recommending you to their connections, they’re going out on a limb.
It’s naive to think this type of request won’t place a strain on your friendship. So, before you decide to ask a friend for a favor, assess how big it really is — and what kind of position it places them in.
You have to decide whether or not you want to put that burden on your relationship.
3. Consider how much you’re giving back to your relationships.
Every friendship is based on trust and reciprocity. You simply can’t have a friendship where one side is always giving or taking.
It’s a good idea to occasionally acknowledge whether there’s an asymmetry in your relationships, and how significant it is. How helpful have you been to other people?
Giving to others really does help you more than you may think.
In the book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, author Adam Grant examines our interactions with others. And he found that — perhaps surprisingly — the “givers” were actually more successful overall.
If you think you could be giving more back to your network, a good place to start is by allocating some time each week to helping other people out. And not just because you think it will benefit you eventually.
Life gets in the way, but if you’re truly friends with someone, it shouldn’t be too much to make a call, answer a question, or do a small favor.
After all, they’ll likely be doing the same for you at some point.