05/17/2016 04:33 EDT | Updated 05/18/2017 05:12 EDT

3 Ways To Build Stronger Friendships

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I learned first-hand the benefits of having a support group. Here's the story.

Three years ago, I arrived in Toronto from Amman to study at the University of Toronto. Like many international students, my world had turned upside down. All of a sudden, I found myself living alone, in a new city and culture, and facing new challenges. It was overwhelming all at once. I was an outsider, trying to fit into a new life.

I picked economics as a major. That's what everybody advised me to do since they said I was a "smart" girl. However, opting to study a major I wasn't interested in, coupled with taking difficult courses, was a recipe for disaster. I was studying hard but not getting the grades. I was homesick and I had to miss my sister's wedding. I was slowly going in a downward spiral and was on the verge of being suspended.

Then I decided to let my ego and pride go and confided in two friends. It was an Aha! Moment for me. Talking to people I trusted instantly made me feel at ease. Those two friends became the support group I needed to get through that rough phase. My friends helped me pick myself up again and get back on track. If I owe my success as a university student to anyone, I'd say it was done with "a little help from my friends," as the Beatles song goes.

Sometimes we, as strong and independent individuals, want to believe that we can face the storm single-handedly, but having supportive friends makes all the difference. As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and a strong advocate of women's leadership, says, we are more effective and productive once we have a support group.

Here are some guidelines to help you effectively create and foster stronger friendships.

Understand your individuality through relationships

We spend a lot of time trying to assert our individuality. But our identities are in fact the outcome of the relationships we create and foster. Dealing with people every single day and understanding their points of view help you better understand yourself. When we foster relationships we are indeed shaping our own personality. According to Dr. Holger Baumann, a psychology professor with the University of Zurich: "Neither are we self-made or self-sufficient beings who exist in complete isolation from others; nor is an understanding of personal autonomy as self-sufficient independence an ideal to be aspired at, or a value that deserves the centrality it is given in modern Western societies."

Listen more, talk less

Seek first to understand, then to be understood, wrote Stephen Covey in his wildly popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In order to do that, you need to listen. Listening is a major life skill that helped me get through tough times. There's a difference between hearing and listening actively with the intent to understand. Active listening entails making a conscious effort to fully engage with the person speaking to us. By being an active listener, I have been able to have deeper interactions with people and hence build stronger bonds with them.

Show vulnerability

Sometimes in our interactions we tend to hold back so as not to be judged. When I show my friends who I really am, I feel stronger and more confident. In my experience, holding back so as to supposedly protect myself has had the opposite result as I was stuck in my own thoughts, which was worse than talking about it. When I discussed my weaknesses and failures, it was rather a self-acknowledgement and a start to help me work on myself. Sharing with your friends how you plan to improve yourself is also a great way to be held accountable and ultimately serves you well. Try to open up to someone you confide in today, and you'll see feel instantly better.

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