Just One Thing: How to Get People to Like You 

I’m perverted in oh so many ways.

One perversity of mine is the habit of being disagreeable with the people I care about. If I don’t care about someone, I’m as agreeable as a sunny day in London. I will laugh at every joke, no matter how lame, and concur with every opinion, no matter how idiotic. But if I care about someone, there is nothing I like better than to challenge everything they say.

I’ve wondered why I do that. It could be that it’s a screening process – to cull out from potential friends the superficially attractive from the worthy contenders. Or it could be that I have such a low opinion of myself that I want to sabotage the relationships that hold the most promise.

And yet I want to be liked. And to be liked by everyone – even those I don’t like.

Here is a fact about human nature: We tend to like people that admire us. Why? Because it makes us feel validated. (“I must be okay in some way if this person believes I am.”) I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could tie that into a survival instinct – joining a tribe for self-protection, perhaps. In any case, it’s an indisputable fact.

And there’s a pragmatic benefit to being admired. People that like you are more apt to cooperate with you. This is why so many successful business people and politicians are able to build teams of people behind them.

There are established methods for getting people to like you. The most popular is probably the one advocated by Dale Carnegie and by Mystery (the reality TV pickup artist): Don’t talk about yourself. Pay attention to them. Listen to what they say. Affirm their feelings. Remember and use their names. Compliment them.

This may sound artificial or manipulative. But I learned long ago two things that I have kept in mind: (1) Even if you are faking your admiration, it is still appreciated. And (2) if you can pay attention to and compliment people earnestly, your likeability will be even greater.

I was reminded of this recently by Donald Miller, a business blogger that has a talent for communicating simple but important business ideas. In a recent essay, he told a story about a fishing trip he took with several of his buddies…

At dinner, one night, one of the guys suggested that they each stand up and accept a standing ovation from the others. Initially, Miller said, he recoiled at the idea. But he went along with it. And when he did, he discovered that he had no trouble participating. “I realized that there was something about each of these men that I genuinely admired,” he said. “I was happy to applaud them and happy to receive their applause.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

I began using this strategy in business about 20 years ago. As a mentor to copywriters, I had a reputation for being critical. I’ve been told that more than once my comments devastated people. I was shocked to hear that and determined to change my ways.

I wasn’t going to refrain from saying what needed to be said. But before I dared to say anything negative, I found something – some aspect of the person’s intelligence, work ethic, or talent – that I could praise. It didn’t have to be a big thing. But it had to be true. They had to know that I honestly admired them for this specific thing.

The result of putting this into practice was a noticeable improvement in the progress of the people I mentored. I believe it was caused by their willingness to accept my criticism because I had established a basis of trust.

The key to this technique is to zero in on something you truly admire about the person and be willing to state it repeatedly and, whenever possible, in front of others. If you fake it, it will (as I said above) still make them feel good. But they will see it as flattery and it won’t build the trust that you want and need.

Some people do this naturally. Number Three Son has been doing it since he was a toddler. When he meets people, he instinctively searches for something he likes about them and expresses it in terms of admiration. He doesn’t do it with any ulterior motive. He does it because he feels it. (It’s not surprising to me that he has such a diverse group of friends and colleagues.)

AS, a high-school friend of mine, is also a master of this technique. He is always telling friends and even strangers what he likes and admires about them. He does it to me all the time. It can be something as unimportant as a quirk or some little routine that he finds amusing. But the telling of it – when it’s genuine – has a powerful impact. And the result? He has dozens if not hundreds of people that like him and would be happy to help him out if he needed help. When it comes to goodwill, his account is overflowing.

Donald Miller’s essay reminds me that relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on belief. Think of every conversation you have as an opportunity to add some goodwill to your personal likeability account.