Think of someone you really like. Now consider why you like them. Are they thoughtful? Interesting? Friendly? People described as likable tend to draw others toward them almost magnetically.
As a leadership communication coach who has worked with thousands of likable and not-so-likable people for more than two decades, I believe likability can be learned. Being seen as a likable person can lead to both personal and professional satisfaction, which leads to overall life contentment. What’s not to like about that?
I recently worked with a client we’ll call Blake. Blake is a likable guy who had been promoted to CEO of a publicly traded company. Even though he was acquainted with most of the employees, he knew it was critical to make a great impression in his new role when he addressed them at an upcoming company meeting.
As we worked together on content and delivery, I asked Blake what he wanted employees to feel when he was done talking. “I want people to feel warm and welcome,” he said, adding that he wanted to create a people-first atmosphere where employees are encouraged to speak up even if others don’t like what they have to say.
This attitude is part of what makes Blake likable. He puts others first and is genuinely interested in their input. When he spoke at that company meeting, he captivated the hundreds of people in the room as he talked about his vision, because he prioritized how they would play a part of that vision. If that’s not enough, under his direction over the next few years, the company went on to become one of the top performers on Wall Street.
The Importance of Being Likable
In the workplace, likability goes a long way toward getting elected, hired, or promoted, and can be a key ingredient in motivating people and closing deals. William Arruda, author of Digital You: Real Personal Branding in the Virtual Age, says that when you prioritize people, you create connections and become more likable.
Many people struggle with “conversational narcissism”…the desire to turn the focus of any exchange to themselves.
Arruda breaks likability into four elements:
- Being interesting. Sharing relevant and compelling stories draws people in.
- Being transparent. It’s hard to be likable if someone thinks you’re hiding something.
- Being generous. No one likes a bragger. Make others feel valued.
- Finding similarities. Identifying what you have in common with others creates a bond.
Lisa Sable echoes that sentiment as an executive partner at BreakFree Strategies, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based company that uses behavioral assessments to help managers develop awareness about themselves and their teams. “Employees want to be heard and valued for who they are,” she says. “When managers truly understand and appreciate the uniqueness of each employee, productivity increases, turnover decreases, and managers are deemed ‘likable.’”
Learn to Be Likable
The good news is that likability isn’t a trait you’re born with—you can learn to be more likable. It isn’t a difficult trait to cultivate. Here are my top five likability tips:
Ask questions. This draws people out and signals your interest in what they have to say. In fact, studies have found that people who ask questions, specifically follow-up questions, which show they are listening, are better liked by their conversation partners.
Be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to share a personal story or display emotion. As a television news reporter covering a Category 5 hurricane years ago, I reported on destruction that was almost impossible to describe. When I got off the air, my producer told me to be more vulnerable when reporting. At first, I was offended. Why would I allow my emotions to spill into my report? But she was right. When I opened up just a bit, people were more connected to the story, and donations to those in need increased significantly.
Be present. Put your phone away and look people in the eye. Truly listen and focus on the conversation.
Use people’s names. This practice makes people feel important and remembered. When you say, “What is your opinion, Victor?” or “So nice to see you, Sofia,” you also create a connection. Just be careful not to overdo it.
Smile and be friendly. A genuine warm smile positions you as positive, friendly, and approachable, and it portrays confidence and professionalism.
What Makes People Unlikable
In the same way we can think of people we like, it’s easy to think of people we cross the room to avoid. But why? Have you considered what it is that makes you want to avoid them? Have you noticed people trying to avoid you? I’ve rounded up what I’ve found to be the most common “unlikable” traits. Hopefully, you don’t see yourself in any of these descriptions.
Talking about themselves too much. Typically, these people get so focused on what they want to say that they don’t actually listen to others. They want to cut you off and turn the conversation to themselves.
Competing in conversation. This person tries to compete with everything you say and “one-up” your stories. For example, if someone’s son won second place in a contest, the competitor jumps in with the news that their son won first place. If someone has traveled to Paris five times, the competitor has been there six times. Get the picture?
In his book, The Pursuit of Attention, sociologist Charles Derber studied face-to-face interactions where researchers watched 1,500 conversations unfold and then recorded how people vied for attention. Derber discovered that without being aware of it, many people struggle with what he calls “conversational narcissism,” which is the desire to turn the focus of any exchange to themselves. Derber points out that good conversations are cooperative, not competitive.
Name-dropping. Meeting interesting people and mentioning them in conversation while sharing a story or experience is fine. However, some people consistently drop names of people they’ve met or experiences they’ve had, hoping to impress listeners. Rather than appearing sophisticated or connected, they come across as insecure braggarts. You don’t need to show off to be likable.
The good news is that likability isn’t a trait you’re either born with or you’re not—you can learn to be more likable.
Gossiping or sharing confidences. I have a friend who often begins sentences with “Please don’t tell anyone, as I was told not to say anything.” I’m always baffled by this. If she was asked not to say anything, then why is she betraying a confidence? People who do so may feel a temporarily inflated sense of importance by knowing something that no one else does, but they come across as untrustworthy and less likable. It’s much better to keep quiet if asked to do so.
Being likable doesn’t have to be complicated. It boils down to one basic concept: If you want to be liked, simply like others for who they are. Being open to different viewpoints, ideas, and ways of doing things makes you approachable. Express curiosity about people’s lives and who they are. Consider different perspectives when giving a speech or conversing with a colleague. Even if you disagree, try keeping an open mind and not passing judgment.
When you’re comfortable seeing the world through a different lens, you increase the chance that others will also like you for who you are.
Karen Friedman is a business communications expert, syndicated columnist, and author of Shut Up and Say Something and Ordinary People: Extraordinary Lessons. Find out more at karenfriedman.com.