All of us want, at least sometimes and in some situations, to be liked. In many circumstances in your life, the reality is that whether or not you are liked will differentiate one person’s success and opportunities from another’s. In fact, the power of likability would be difficult to overstate. Likable people have more and deeper personal connections, greater workplace success, and more romantic prospects and better overall relationships. Being likable can often be the unconscious deciding factor in getting a job over someone else in an interview and how we are ranked in performance reviews. Likable people are more likely to easily establish and maintain close personal friendships. Being likable will make you more approachable and make people feel safer being honest and vulnerable with you, both key components to building trust and connections. Being likable matters very much, and for some people, it comes very easily and naturally, but like most things that matter, some reflection on the topic can make us think about ourselves in ways that will better serve not only us, but those we care about. Focusing on likability as a set of skills to cultivate is no exception to this rule. Being likable is essential, and thankfully, likability is not an inherent trait that you either possess or don’t, but rather is a series of skills and mindsets that you can learn, and which will have a massive positive impact on your life.
To be likable, the most important thing to keep in mind is that likable people are worth liking. Likability comes from a genuine place, a place where others around you feel trusted and seen, and where you offer something meaningful in return for the time and attention of others. You cannot expect to be likable for who you are if you do not take the time to cultivate a self that appeals to others. This doesn’t mean that you have to compromise your values or identity; not at all. What this does mean however, is that being likable will require you to consider how you present yourself to others and what you offer in an interaction in order to be perceived positively. It means being attentive and genuine, but it also means being aware of how your thoughts, moods, feelings and attitudes impact others. It means seeing others first before you work to be seen.
First, remember little things about other people. If possible, remember a few small details about people you meet or know. Try to remember their food or drink order, or maybe an allergy or preference. If they frequently wear the same color for instance, you now know something about their preferences. Once you know a few small things about someone, refer back to that thing in a natural, organic way when appropriate. For example, if last time you met someone they ordered a gluten free meal, and you are meeting again for a meal you can now choose a place that has gluten free choices to make them comfortable, and you can make them feel seen in that by offering something like, “Oh, I think you’ll really like this place, they have a great menu of options without gluten.” Or, on an even smaller level, let’s say you know someone has more of a tan than usual, you can make them feel seen with something like, “Wow, you look like you’ve really gotten some sun lately, what have you been up to?” Are they wearing a new piece of clothing or jewelry? Do they have a bandaid on their arm, calluses on their hands they didn’t have last time you saw them, or do they have a new haircut? Offering an observation of a small detail as part of a conversion starter can change a generic interaction into something more meaningful and purposeful.
Always ask after them first. When you begin a conversation with someone, the first thing you should always do is to ask after them first, and be as specific as possible. Even in an established relationship, try to avoid leading with a story, feeling, or observation about yourself. This can be tough to do, but let me offer a few examples. If, for example, you know someone has recently been studying for an exam, a good starter to a conversation might be, “Hey, you’ve been working on that mid-term all week, how are you holding up?” Another example might be something like, “Haven’t talked to you all week, must have been swamped, how did your test go?” The point is to show people that the reason you are engaged with them is because you care about them. Giving others the first chance to speak builds trust that you are invested in them. For formal relationships and when meeting new people, I like to think about a rough 70/30 rule, where I aim to keep 70% or so of the conversation focused on them if possible.
Ask for help with small things even if you don’t necessarily need it. It is a good general rule that people like to help others more than we think they do. Most people really want opportunities to be valuable and to offer their time and service to those that they love. Reciprocity can be a great way to build trust and spend time with people, but sometimes you’ll have to create those moments rather than wait for them to appear. Sometimes, it can be useful to ask for help with something low stakes and simple not because you really need the help to complete the task, but because by asking someone to help you, you are showing them that their contribution of time and energy is something you value. It makes us all feel good to help those we care about. This is a useful thought to keep in mind in work settings as well. Asking for help with a small project or to troubleshoot a problem even if you don’t think you need it creates a sense of partnership.
Manage the physical comfort of others. Whenever possible, take note of how other people seem to feel. Is someone sweating or pulling their coat tighter around them? Have you been out all day and haven’t stopped to eat? Is someone starting to seem tired, moving more slowly, yawning, or looking distracted? Take the time to notice the comfort of others and, when a read of the room and situation allows, make an effort to keep or maintain their comfort. Keep your home at the right temperature for guests, stop what you’re doing to offer snacks or take breaks you might not need but that you sense others might prefer. Being uncomfortable physically makes people irritable, which reduces the chances of building connections. Helping to solve the discomfort of others makes people feel seen and appreciated.
Avoid asking for favors or raises around mealtimes or when people are uncomfortable. This is just a really practical truth. Studies show that people are less generous and kind when they are hungry or uncomfortable. If you are in a position where you need to rely on someone’s largesse, it is a good idea not to burden them with your request for a favor when they are focused on their discomfort. Mistiming this can lead to people refocusing their discomfort on you or onto your ask. Instead, if you need to ask for a raise or a favor, make people as comfortable as possible before beginning the ask. They will appreciate the effort and you will likely see a greater reward.
If you are trying to curry favor with someone, extend your efforts one social level further than the person you are focused on. People are naturally drawn to those who are kind and helpful to those they love. If you are building a friendship with someone, include in your efforts their friends or family. Extending your care and efforts one level further not only broadens your social circle, but it tells the person you are building trust with that you see and value their other relationships.
Don’t make excuses. Be reliable. This one is fairly straightforward. A lot of relationship building can be undone quickly if you are flaky. If you are reliable, you are telling people that you value their time. When you are unreliable, you are communicating exactly the opposite and you undermine a lot of your own efforts this way.
Apologize when you are wrong. All of us make mistakes, but likable people own their mistakes and apologize for them. Apologizing doesn’t cost you anything, and lets people know that you are willing to see your errors and the impact they’ve had on others. When we make mistakes and apologize, this can be an opportunity to grow closer with someone, but only if we are willing and able to be vulnerable and admit our mistakes. However, it is also important not to over apologize. Apologize when you mean it and when it matters, don’t apologize as a verbal tic or as a way to show deference to someone.
Don’t interrupt. Seriously. Everyone hates this. Be an attentive listener.
If you tell a story after someone else, relate your story to theirs. Just like you shouldn’t interrupt, don’t be a story-topper. It’s a terrific joy to talk and trade stories with people, but if someone is telling you a story, that is your cue to listen, not to wait for your turn to speak. If the conversation naturally leads you to tell a story, acknowledge their story as part of how you transition in or out or your story. An easy example is just a short transition phrase like, “Oh, that’s (nuts/sad/awesome, etc.), that had to be (crazy/terrible, etc.), I once had something like that happen….” You can also do this in reverse. If you tell a story after someone in the natural flow of conversation, you can make sure they still feel heard by ending your story with a reference to theirs with a phrase like, “….which is why I thought about this when you told me about X, it just feels so similar, I can relate.” The point is not to memorize these phrases, but to remember that conversation is about listening as much or more than it is about talking.
Keep track of important dates and ask after people. This too is simple, and I suggest using your phone. Keep a calendar to set reminders for things that you know are important to other people such as birthdays, but also small things, like a doctor’s appointment they may be nervous about, or a test you know they studied for. You don’t have to commit everything to memory to remember people, it’s ok to put things in your phone.
Make casual eye contact when listening. Don’t stare hard into people’s eyes, but if you want someone to feel heard, make casual eye contact. They will know you are focused on them when you literally focus on them. Lean in when listening if the conversation topics are intense or intimate to show interest and engagement.
Always stand up to greet people. This is such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. When a guest comes to your home or someone enters the room for the first time, when you greet them, NEVER wave or stay seated. Always stand up to greet them.
Mimic small body gestures or turns of phrase. Ok, you’ll hear this one a lot in sort of “bro-hack Ted Talk, One Simple Thing” kind of circles and so often it is misunderstood and clumsily overused. What I have found however is that matching someone’s rough mannerisms or style isn’t a manipulation so much as a natural vibe that two people create. If you are paying attention to someone and really listening, you will likely find that you pick up little phrases, affectations, or mannerisms when you speak with that person. That’s a good thing. Don’t overthink this piece or try to “be” the other person-you can’t build likability through inauthentic behavior.
Remember what they’ve told you and bring up their views in relevant conversations. This is similar to remembering little things, but it’s much more conversationally directed. Let me give you an example. If last time you spoke with someone, they mentioned that they are a vegetarian for environmental reasons, you know that environmental issues are important to them. When appropriate, you can bring that issue up in a conversation knowing that it is a topic they are interested and passionate about. Offering that tie-in during other conversations is a great way to build connections, it gives people an opportunity to talk about something you already know they are interested in.
If you don’t want to do a social something, don’t lie about it or invent an excuse. It’s ok to turn down a social invitation if it’s not something you want to do, but do so honestly and gently. Don’t invent reasons.
Conversely, be agreeable when the stakes are low. For situations where the cost to you for being agreeable is low, you should err on the side of saying yes and going along with an activity or suggestion. You might learn something about yourself in the process, but you will also find that agreeable people have more social opportunities and experiences. Don’t be stingy with your time. Attend social events for the people rather than because the activity appeals to you. There will be many times where you may be ambivalent about the activity your friends are interested in, but avoiding that activity reduces your social exposure. Thinking of the activity itself as a means to create social connections will make you much happier and more likely to say yes to opportunities to socialize.
When it comes to meeting and interacting with new people and building new relationships, having an activity to gather around and experience together will take pressure off of trying to constantly find new things to talk about and will give you time to gather your thoughts and feelings. A shared activity is always the best ice breaker when meeting new people.
Offer advice only if you know it will be well received. Advice is something you should be cautious about providing. In many situations, advice is unwelcome or inappropriate, and it can sometimes feel unintentionally judgmental. Advice given and taken within established, dear, and trusted relationships is invaluable. Be careful about offering advice if a read of the room doesn’t seem like it’s being asked of you.
Never loan anyone money. All money you lend is a gift. Few things can hurt a relationship the way that money can. Always assume that any money you lend someone else is a gift. Conversely, assume that any money someone lends to you is a loan that you should endeavor to repay.
If you find yourself in an argument, stop talking and listen more carefully. Arguing with others can damage your likability. That’s not to say that you should never argue, but if you find yourself in an argument, take a step back and listen more carefully. When we listen and try to understand someone else’s view, we are almost certainly going to feel more empathy, which tends to defuse tense situations.
Watch for cues that others are disengaging and allow them to exit. If you see a lack of eye contact, over the shoulder glances at others, crossed arms, a step back or away, or other cues, gracefully end the conversation and allow the other person to leave the interaction. Don’t physically corner people. Leaving an interaction might not have anything to do with you, so don’t feel hurt. Sometimes people have their own reasons they need to leave a conversation. Let them.
Don’t overshare. It’s important to gauge the comfort of other people when deciding what to share about your life. Many topics, from sex, to money, to body functions, to religion can be sensitive or uncomfortable for some people even if they are not uncomfortable for you. Be aware of what types of things others share before choosing to share sensitive details. If you are introducing a sensitive subject or topic, do so cautiously at first so you can watch how comfortable others seem with your topic. If you sense discomfort, or others don’t engage or offer their experiences or thoughts on that or a similar subject, avoid going down that road with them again until you are confident it’s appropriate.
In a school or business setting, don’t directly contradict people. Instead, offer an alternative view by acknowledging the other person’s thoughts with some version of, “Another option to address the issue would be…” This allows you to offer your view without minimizing someone else’s contribution or belittling someone.
At a restaurant when sharing appetizers or other plates, if possible, be the first person to take food and begin passing it. This relieves the awkward burden from others and makes you seem assertive and friendly.
Never take the best or last item from a plate of shared foods. Always offer the last and best piece to others. Don’t make it awkward though, and if everyone else is following the same rule, it’s ok to make a little joke out of taking the last piece.
If you space out while someone is talking, don’t try to fake it. Instead, just say, “I’m sorry, I missed that last part”. Everyone spaces out. It’s ok, just don’t try to pretend. Sometimes, we think we’ve spaced out but our minds kind of archived what was just said subconsciously. Sometimes if my mind drifted for a moment I find that I can pause and then repeat back what someone just said, which lets me “hear” it again for the first time and regain my place in the conversation.
If you don’t understand what someone is saying, don’t pretend you do or agree out of fear of being called out. Just ask them to rephrase, “Wait, I’m not sure I caught that.” Works wonderfully, and again, is both vulnerable and authentic. Don’t pretend to understand or agree with things to avoid conflict. You can likably avoid conflict and still disagree or ask for more details or clarification.
I have spoken a lot here and elsewhere about the idea of “Reading the Room.” Reading the Room is really just another way of saying that you understand the social vibe of the situation and the people you are with. When you pay attention to people you will learn to see their body language and facial expressions as something you intimately know, but of course I have some suggestions on this as well.
How to “read the room”
Pay attention to the volume of conversation and match the volume of the room. Don’t be the loudest or quietest guy talking.
Note body language. Are people fidgeting, checking phones, clocks, watches, standing comfortably and leaning in or shifting back, sideways and away from you or others? Try to see what’s making them feel how they are behaving. Is there a physical cause? An awkward topic? An accidental overshare? People will tell you how they feel with their bodies as much as their words, so keep your eyes on others.
What topics of conversation or jokes are on display? Reading the room is about understanding the unspoken rules of social engagement. If you feel like you’re in doubt, no problem, just follow the lead of others who are taking a decisive role in the room.
Look where others are looking to see where their attention is focused. If people are making eye contact with others while talking with you, that is a sign they are not engaged and to give them room. If others seem focused on someone who is telling a story or a joke, don’t try to redirect attention. Follow the flow of those in the room by following their gaze. Pay attention to where attention is paid.
Finally, and I think most importantly, most social situations you are in won’t be completely new. You are more than likely going to know people in the situation, and that knowledge should give you a leg up in understanding the read of the room. Pay attention to those people, and note any changes to normal behaviors in those you know. Are people quieter than normal? Are voices more terse, answers more clipped? Do they seem more or less relaxed? Most of the idea of reading a room is spotting the comfort or discomfort of others. The more attention you’ve paid to those you socialize with, and the more you are in the habit of paying attention, the more easily you’ll be able to spot changes which cue you in to the mood of the situation.
As I’ve written this, I realize that this may sound daunting, but really most of being likable comes down to paying attention to others, to genuinely and authentically listening and seeing them, and to caring about what you learn about the experiences of other people The more you keep this in mind, the more the guidelines above will feel second nature.