Becoming Likeable

An increasing part of my work, particularly with younger professionals who are dubbed as “high potentials,” involves providing instruction on what may be the quintessential ingredient of leadership today: the ability to engender trust. Sounds simple but it’s not. Fundamentally, leadership is knowing what to do, doing it at the right time and getting others to do it because they trust you.

If trust is the core requirement of leadership, becoming likeable is the essential foundation for building it. People do not trust those whom they dislike. But they do admire those who are likeable. So, to begin with the obvious: the easiest way to become likeable is to be likeable. This simple principle also applies to making friends – people will treat you as a friend when you act like a friend. As you doubtless may know, being likeable is a skill. And all skills are learnable.

Memory is linked to mood. In making a meaningful “connection” with others, we need to invoke their positive memories. In consequence, they will think positively about us. So compliments actually do work, provided they are based on truth. You cannot fake sincerity.

I tell the students in my negotiating classes that making others feel good about themselves makes them feel good about you. That makes them much more receptive to hearing the reasons why you are asking them to do something for you that may be counter to their self-interests or motives. Even when your argument may be airtight, attacking others’ beliefs only serves to harden those beliefs. Despite what they might say, people are more sensitive to disagreement than you may realize.

We are biologically hard-wired to reciprocate kindness. When someone helps you or offers a service, you are being persuaded. So, curiously, asking a favour of another is a subtle form of flattery that can pay dividends. For example, people like to feel smart – so ask for their advice even when you don’t need it.

Likeability is founded on similarity and established almost instantaneously. We like people who are like us because we have very strong and positive opinions about ourselves. That said, there are certain behaviours that can either increase or decrease that magnetic attraction. To illustrate, we become more likeable when we don’t boast of our strengths or accomplishments: people admire talent but dislike braggarts.

You kill your likeability when you come off as fake, aloof or indifferent. A friendly, open demeanor ignites the mirror neurons in others. When someone smiles at you, you unconsciously smile back – this is because your mirror neurons have been reflexively engaged. We call it interpersonal chemistry but it’s actually biological.

So to increase your likeability, learn and use social bonding cues – smile, nod, grunt (pleasantly), lean in, make eye contact. Listen before you speak. Act as if the person you are speaking with is the most important person in the world. Concentrate on what they are saying. Ask open-ended questions. Say “please tell me more about that.” Keep the spotlight on them more than you. Let them come to you rather than forcing your persona on them.

We connect more with our non-verbal gestures than we do with our words. Endeavour to synchronize your body language with theirs. Don’t mimic their cues, just casually and discreetly mirror them. This builds instant rapport and empathy – a powerful and proven method of building affinity and alignment. It’s how we “connect” with others. Look them in the eye and avoid crossing your arms, standing sideways or slumping. Use a pleasant, composed and enthusiastic tone of voice.

If, on first meeting someone, he or she says something you may find disagreeable, just nod, smile and say nothing. In the beginning, look for shared interests and common ground. View every person you meet as an opportunity to learn something new. Being unpredictable is more persuasive and memorable than being predictable.

Always take the high ground; never deny what’s true. Frame yourself as the wise adult in the room rather than the petulant child. Accept your vulnerabilities and embrace criticism: it makes you more relatable. Debating their perceptions of you puts you into a defensive, child-like frame of mind and makes you less endearing. Adults speak about people’s aspirations – who they are and what they want to become. Children prefer to argue about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Likeable people are credible. Being likeable, and ultimately persuasive, is strongest when you are believable. Credibility is sort of like a bank account: what you say and do is either noted as a credit or a debit in your trust account with others. And when “stuff happens,” we invariably must draw on that reserve of good feelings.

The secret to success in building your likeability, I suggest, is to keep things simple – say what you really think, admit your weaknesses, embrace your vulnerabilities (after all, they make you human) and devote your attention to things that really matter. Our imperfections make us more approachable and less intimidating to others. I have, for example, discovered that being a self-confessed mechanical klutz usually endears me to my rural friends.