Listen to this story
It’s 2015 and I am attending a business conference with the purpose of “networking”. I am excited and scared — but mostly scared.
My bag is full of business cards, my mind full of interesting facts about my crowdfunding campaign — facts that I so eagerly want to share with all these online marketers, web developers and investors. I hold my glass of wine in what I think to be a confident manner, and I look around. It’s time to interact.
I approach my first victim. He is tall and looks successful. I introduce myself shyly.
I have his attention for 2 seconds, and then I start losing him. I notice his eyes moving away from mine as he searches the room for other people with more interesting things to say. My own words start to sound empty to me: I am talking but he isn’t listening. I think, “he doesn’t like me, and I can’t make him like me.”
For much of my life, I had this feeling that I was unlikeable. As a child, other kids seemed to avoid spending one-on-one time with me, and my best friend kept on breaking my heart by replacing me with other girls. As a teenager and as an adult, I suffered more romantic rejections that most people I know, and I always seemed to fall short in job interviews.
Most of us have this feeling of not being well-liked at some point in our lives. Even though we have friends, family and supportive people around us, many of us often feel that something deeper is missing: more than being liked, we wish to be admired, to inspire, to be approached by others for our company and advice.
I am here to tell you that this deeper satisfaction is simpler to achieve than it seems. In the rest of this article, I’ll tell you how and outline a set of exercises that will give you a much more satisfying way to relate to people.
Winning Friends or Influencing People — Which One Do You Choose?
In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends & Influence People, which turned out to become one of the best selling self-help books of all time and one of the major references for people who want to… well, either win friends, influence people, or both.
Despite it having changed the lives of thousands and inspired many to achieve success in business and life — and being a timeless source of priceless wisdom — some of the contents in the book have often been object of negative criticism.
Whereas the main ideas in the book revolve around the fact that people will like you if you offer them attention (“Become genuinely interested in other people”, or “Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely” are good examples of this approach), there are other instances where the author’s advice doesn’t feel as authentic. For example, the tip “Let the other person feel like the idea is his or hers” — paired with Carnegie’s description of how he used his child to plant an idea in his wife’s mind, to convince her to agree to travel to his favorite vacation spot.
This approach might be extremely effective if you want to be a successful salesperson in the short term. However, when it comes to building long-term friendships or intimate relationships, it can prove to be unsustainable, as it might lead you to act in ways that are not in alignment with your authentic self.
One of the reasons we feel as if people don’t like us is because we try to sell them an idea of who we are, instead of letting them see our true selves. As we desperately try to gain their approval and coerce them into accepting our ideas, we forget one major factor: they have a will of their own, and they want to feel loved as much as we do.
The reason why that successful-looking man at the conference lost interest in my pitch so fast was because I wasn’t being authentic. I approached him with the goal of convincing him that my crowdfunding idea was great, even though I honestly wasn’t passionate about it myself. Moreover, I wasn’t interested in listening to him at all. I had all my emotional barriers up: I was impenetrable, and he could sense it. Why would anyone want to listen to someone like that?
The 2 Secret Ingredients for Bulletproof Likeability
Authenticity is at the heart of likeability in two fundamental ways.
First, an example: one of the best gifts of authenticity I ever gave myself was to stop shaving.
At first it was difficult because I was so afraid of what people would say. But as I started to accept my body hair as a natural part of myself, I also began to like the way it looked on me. Loving my body as it was was an act of self-acceptance. Loving myself more, I became more confident. Being the only unshaven woman in most social situations actually made me feel like a total badass: a girl with a statement, a 21st century Frida.
Then I noticed that people around me began to feel inspired by that confidence and seemed more interested inrelating to me in general. This was one of my first true experiences of authenticity, and I loved it.
Nowadays, “just be yourself” might well be one of the biggest self-help clichés out there. We hear it so often, and yet very few of us actually know how to do it. To me, being myself is one of the hardest and most complex goals I have ever set out to achieve. However, it has also been one of the most rewarding, because it allows me to practice an even nobler, more fulfilling skill: to hold space for others and to support them in being their own selves.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” — Dale Carnegie
Once you learn how to be authentic, other people will feel comfortable being authentic in your presence. This is probably the most beautiful, powerful, and genuine way to get other people to like you.
Right after learning how to love and accept yourself, the next step for you to gain other people’s affection is to actively practice the same love and compassion towards them.
A study by researchers at the Waisman Centre at the University of Wisconsin shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate — and that we can rewire our brains to become more empathetic. This is great news, because according to further research, empathy (as well as active listening) brings numerous benefits to our close relationships, work relationships, and even to our interactions with strangers.
In other words, showing others our attention and ability to understand their feelings increases the chances of them liking us more.
My life began to change when I understood that all I need to do in order for others to like me — to truly like me — was to be authentic and pay deep, loving attention to them.
This time, I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in a beautiful park eating tropical fruits and talking with other health-enthusiast-location-independent entrepreneurs like myself. This time, there is no pressure to impress anyone. This time, I belong where I am, and my projects of passion are intertwined with my lifestyle, which I share with others from a place of natural enthusiasm. My “networking” intentions are purely personal and human. Most important of all, I am genuinely interested in hearing what each of those people have to say to me: I want to learn from their experiences, and the opportunity to support them is a gift. I listen, I share, I offer and welcome feedback without expecting to change anyone’s values or converting them to my own beliefs.
What’s has changed since that first dreadful conference? Nowadays, people approach me, and they want me to stick around. Not only do they like me, but they are inspired by me. They see how I glow with happiness and fulfillment, and I gladly share this energy with them. This time, I am the successful-looking person, and I am open to connect.
I want to share with you a few exercises that have radically improved the way I relate to people and the way other people react to me, through the practice of two main skills: 1) being myself, and 2) holding space for others to be authentic.
Some of them are fruits of my own creation, others are based on solidly established practices (such as Nonviolent Communication). Feel free to experiment and tweak them to make them your own!
“Be Yourself” — Practical Exercises for Achieving Authenticity
Exercise 1. Emotional Breathing
Instructions: Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breath. Acknowledge each breath in, and each breath out. While remaining aware of your breath, notice your emotions as they surface. Observe them without judgment: if you’re feeling anxious, don’t wish it to go away. If you’re feeling extreme excitement, accept that it won’t last forever. You are not your emotions; you are a balanced observer.
At first you might want to practice this alone before you meet someone (or during a bathroom break), but with time you will become more comfortable and you can even do it in the presence of other people.
Benefits: This exercise brings your awareness to yourself, which is the very first step towards knowing how to be yourself. Your breath — such as your deepest identity — exists beyond any challenging emotion, and beyond any uncomfortable conversation or interaction.
Exercise 2. What do I want from this?
Instructions: When talking to a person or a group of people, ask yourself the following question: “What is my intention with this interaction?” Think about what this person means to you. Go even deeper and identify more subtle emotional nuances and motivations: am I just trying to sound clever by telling my co-workers about the book I read last week, or do I genuinely want to share this knowledge with them?
Benefits: Setting goals and intentions for each interaction gives you clarity on your interpersonal needs, which might otherwise be neglected or overlooked. This way, the path becomes clearer: you’re more in tune with yourself, and your interactions are much happier and fulfilling.
Exercise 3. Light bulb!
Instructions: Whenever someone says something that makes you feel angry, annoyed, or afraid, and your impulse is to act in a defensive or aggressive way, imagine a light bulb switching on inside your head.
As the light bulb is switched on, you can take a moment to observe everything more clearly under its brightness. It’s likely that the person wasn’t trying to upset you, but due to some previous trauma or experiences in your life, you got triggered by their actions. As you take a moment to observe, you can see beyond the raw emotion of it and look deeper. You are no longer blinded by your feelings, and therefore you don’t project them onto the other person in the shape of a rude answer or a poorly made excuse. Instead, you contain them, digest them, and if necessary communicate those feeling in a more equanimous manner.
Benefits: This is how to stop reacting and start consciously responding to social triggers (the light bulb is a useful visual add-on). You can become more aware of your emotions and regain balance before acting. In social situations, you can be much calmer, clear-minded, and ultimately more yourself.
Exercise 4. Honest Experimentation
Instructions: Be completely open about the fact that you‘re’ working on being authentic and use it as a chance to practice. You can tell your friend next time you meet for brunch:
“I am doing an experiment— I am trying to be more authentic. Therefore, I might say some things or act in a way that’s slightly different than usual. That’s intentional, and that’s OK.”
If you don’t want to go that far, you can try something like:
“I’m trying to come up interesting questions for moving beyond small talk, could we try that in our conversation? Here are a few of them”. Have some questions prepared; for inspiration, try picking some from The 36 Questions That Lead to Love (don’t be put off by the title…the questions are all about increasing intimacy and vulnerability between two people and most can work in any context).
Benefits: Scary? Yes. But if you want to sound authentic, you need to be authentic. Therefore, practice honesty by talking about things that matter to you, bringing the conversation into the present moment, and embracing vulnerability as your most powerful strength.
Exercise 5. Centered Journaling
Instructions: When you get home after meeting someone, write down some observations on the key aspects of your interaction:
“What made me feel the most stressed?”
“Which moments did I enjoy the most?”
“What can I take from this interaction in order to improve myself?”
“What do I regret?”
“Did I allow myself to be myself? If not, why?”
“What feels different now that I am on my own?”
Benefits: Asking yourself questions and processing the answers by journaling is a great way to ground yourself in reality and assess how you’re doing. Your heart might be jumping and your head re-playing key moments from the encounter — and all your inherent judgements about it — but connecting with yourself gives you the opportunity for acceptance and growth.
“Holding Space” — Practical Exercises for Developing Empathetic Attention
Exercise 1. Meditate
Instructions: Any kind of meditation will do — if you have your own favorite practice, that will work. If you’re new to meditation, here is a good place to begin.
Benefits: Most of us struggle to be good listeners and hold space for others simply because we just can’t stay focused on what they’re saying. After a few weeks of daily meditative practice, you start becoming aware of whole new levels of perception in interactions: body language, feelings behind words, deeper stages of empathy and connection.
Exercise 2. Listen for the feelings
Instructions: Many people think that active listening is simply about nodding and saying “mmm-hmm”, or paraphrasing what people just said. But it’s about much more than that.
The following is an exercise based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication work, which focuses on “listening for the feelings” behind someone’s speech.
When someone tells you something, instead of just repeating things back at them or agreeing as a way to reassure them, try to connect with a deeper part of them: their emotions. So, if your colleague says:
“I hate our boss! She gave Steve that new amazing client and left us with the boring paperwork again! Someone’s gonna pay for this. I’m tired of this poor excuse for an office!”
Instead of just nodding and repeating it back at him in hopes to maintain your friendship, try to connect with what he feels:
“So John, you’re saying that you’re feeling angry and frustrated after you learned that Steve got the case that you wanted for yourself. Since you spoke with our boss about your preference before, you now feel that your need to be heard and understood is not being met, as well as your need for fairness. You are tempted to react and ‘do something’ with your anger. Is that how you feel?”
Benefits: When your listening skills are tuned in to people’s feelings (as well as their wants and needs), they feel much closer to you. They feel understood and heard, and their sharing seems much more rewarding. They might even feel that you have revealed parts of themselves that they didn’t even see before.
Exercise 3. “It’s not just about me.”
Instructions: When someone is talking to you, don’t interrupt. No matter how interesting that thought which just popped into your awareness is, it can wait for a few seconds. Also, don’t reply to everything the other person says with something about yourself. There are plenty of other things you can say: thank them for sharing their story, ask them interesting questions, make suggestions or comment on their opinions, or simply tell them how you feel after hearing what they said.
Of course, you will also want to share things about yourself, and you should do that in many situations. But in this exercise, you are putting yourself aside to focus on the other person as a powerful way to connect with them.
Benefits: How many times have you felt annoyed at people who only seem to be able to talk about themselves? “It’s like they don’t even notice they’re doing it”, you probably thought. Well, this will prevent you from being that person. That’s a giant step towards people liking you more.
Exercise 4. “Five things I like about you”
Instructions: As you interact with someone, think about your five favorite things about that person. Is her speech super articulate and clear? Is she the bravest person you know? Is her jacket gorgeous and her sense of fashion outstanding? Let yourself sink into that feeling. If you want to make this more effective, share these findings with the person in conversation. “Oh, by the way, I just love your sense of humor — that joke was hilarious!” Don’t reach for flattering or bribing, as that kind of fakery sounds, well, fake.
Benefits: I find this one great to use with people that I initially dislike. As you look for positive traits in someone, not only will your own opinion change, but you will also seem more open and loving in their eyes. By telling them what’s positive about them, you’re boosting their confidence, and they will associate being with you with positive feelings of power and self-esteem.
Authenticity as the Path to Likability
As we’ve seen, likability comes down to fostering authenticity in both yourself and others.
It starts with you and your work on your internal processes to “be yourself”: exercises to build awareness through pausing, journaling, and practicing honest vulnerability.
You expand authenticity by holding space for others to do the same: giving them the experience of actually being heard, and creating situations to encourage them to be vulnerable and honest themselves.
The real secret of “making people like you”? Actually become a more likable person.