Developing a Winning Personality

Becoming likeable without subverting your integrity.

Posted Mar 10, 2019

Vic, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Vic, Flickr, CC 2.0

Even some brilliant people suffer professionally and personally from the lack of a likeable personality.

And some such people don’t care: “I don’t want to play those games.”

But if you do care to, as the classic book said “win friends and influence people” without sacrificing your integrity, perhaps one or more of these tips will help:

Eye contact. Look the person in the eye 1/2 to 3/4 of the time. More than that can feel creepy. To get in the habit, early in conversations, note the person’s eye color.

Posture. We ridicule the past’s deportment school in which people were trained into good posture by walking with a book on their head, shoulders back, back straight, head facing straight ahead while somehow managing to look relaxed. But shallow, lookist species that we are, the person with said posture is generally viewed as more likeable.

Body language. In a two-person conversation, stand not face-to-face but at a 30° angle—That’s connecting but not confrontational. Of course, if you know the person well, head-on is fine. Also, avoid crossing your arms—that’s distancing.

Aim for conversational balance, not self-absorption. Older people tend to criticize Gen Zers and Millennials as self-absorbed. I see no generational difference—Most people of all ages tend to be self-absorbed. I’m not encouraging self-abnegation, just balance. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I'm not for myself, who will be? But if I'm only for myself, what am I?”

Achieve but usually without making others feel less-than. Most people are powerfully motivated to not feel inferior or embarrassed. So while, of course, strive and achieve, the benefit of sharing achievements with others, for example, impressing your boss, need be weighed against the risk of antipathy: “What a show-off!. S/he's just masking her feeling insecure."

Show moderate confidence. Rarely will you want to exude pervasive self-doubt, for example, "I'm such a loser." On the other hand, demonstrating lofty self-confidence will too often be seen as not credible or make the other person feel inferior, which, as mentioned, usually causes antipathy if not retribution. As with most things: moderation is usually right: When you’re confident about an assertion, it’s okay to say, for example, “I’m pretty sure this is wise but what do you think?" And when you’re not confident, it's okay to say, for example, “I’m just not a good public speaker. Despite trying, my talks are too discursive, and if I script them, they’re sterile.”

Judge but usually without expressing it. It’s absurd that we denigrate people for being “judgmental.” Discernment is core to good decision-making: what to buy, whom to vote for, donate to, hire, or befriend. But the wise person consciously decides whether to voice judgment, especially about your conversation partner. Let’s say you think your conversation partner’s self-confidence wildly exceeds his or her competence, you must weigh the advantages of shaking the person from undue complacency against the likelihood of resentment, even retaliation.

Default toward the positive. Many Europeans look down on Americans’ insistence on optimism over realism but, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, or I should say, when in America, do as the Americans do. Of course, there are times to be negative and to criticize. Even in the U.S., people roll their eyes at Miss America Pollyanism, and improvement does come mainly from suggestions for improvement. But when the ratio of your negative-to-positive comments exceeds 1-to-1, you risk being less well-liked.

Default to a pleasant expression. This is a corollary of the previous suggestion. Of course, the plastered, exaggerated, contextually inappropriate salesperson’s smile is disingenuousness worthy of rolled eyes. But if wearing mild pleasantness on your face doesn’t come naturally, it may be worth the effort to make that your default and to look for opportunities to legitimately smile.

Moderate speaking pace, volume, pitch, and use of hands. We claim to celebrate diversity but often it’s not true, including regarding comportment. People who speak more quickly or slowly than average are generally disliked. Same with volume, use of hands, and pitch. Of course, you have only modest control over your voice’s pitch but aim for the bottom of your voice’s natural range—Don’t sound gravelly.

Active-listen. Avoid the trap of not listening, mainly waiting for the person to shut up so you can spout your pearls. As we listen, we all think ahead and that’s okay, but try to really listen to what your conversation partner is saying, noting what if any emotion is behind it.

Ask questions. This is a corollary of the previous suggestion. In listening, be curious: Might there be a follow-up you want to ask? Asking is flattering and you might even learn something. Of course, in initiating conversation, you also could do worse than to begin with a question. For example, "What are you thinking about these days?" Or, "Anything coming up that you're looking forward to?" Later in the conversation, when you feel you can deepen it, you might ask, "Have any regrets?" about something specific they did, or even about their life in general.

Use the 30-50 rule. On average, talk 30 to 50 percent of the time, allowing the other person 50 to 70. Of course, this will vary with how much you—compared with the other person—have to say of value on the topic. Also, a small percentage of people in some situations would rather listen more than 70 percent of the time, in which case you could even go to 80, but such situations are rare.

Use the traffic-light rule. During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: the person is listening, not waiting for you to shut up so s/he can say something nor thinking you’re long-winded. During the next 30 seconds, your light is yellow, and at the 60-second mark, unless you’re telling a compelling anecdote and see that your conversation partner is fully engaged, your light is red: Shut up or ask a question. If the person wants to know more, s/he can ask.

Take a nuanced approach to interrupting. The oft urged, ‘Never interrupt” lacks nuance. Yes, default to not interrupting, but long-winded people impose too much frustration to put up with—You have a right to get your needs met and thus to interrupt—because of long-windedness or because you’re afraid you’ll forget the important thing you’d like to say. (In a business meeting, you could jot it down so you won’t forget it.) Also, some people like an interruptive conversation style, in which you understand each other’s points before they’re finished. Yet another justification for interrupting is when your conversation partner knows s/he tends to be discursive and welcomes your reining him or her in.

Use the one-second pause Most people welcome your pausing for a second before you respond. That shows not only that you are polite in not interrupting but that their statement or question is important enough to warrant reflection before you respond. Again, there are exceptions. Some people, indeed some cultures (New York Jews and Israelis come to mind), prefer rapid-fire exchanges.

The appropriate use of physical touching. Physical touch can be powerful and endearing, but in today’s #metoo era, men must be especially circumspect in deciding whether to touch a female. But even men are wise to, as appropriate, use clearly not-sexual touching, for example, a one-second touch on the forearm when offering reassurance.

Keep your head in the clouds, feet on the ground. People who frequently propose lofty, unrealistic ideas are often dismissed. On the other hand, relentless focus on the high-probability practical is often seen as excessively sober. As with many things, a measure of balance is required. If you naturally default to big if potentially unrealistic ideas, espouse them but temper them by acknowledging challenges. If you naturally default to the pragmatic, it couldn’t hurt to at least occasionally propose higher-risk but exciting new possibilities.

Learn to work a room. Arrive early, scope out a person or group that feels appealing, but beware of the tendency to focus on people of our own race, gender, and age. Approach the person(s) with an “environmental” comment—No, not about climate change but about the meeting, the room, etc, and then ask a door-opening question such as, “First time at these meetings?” or “Have you heard of the speaker?” Then slowly deepen the conversation by responding to their statement with a bit of personal revelation and then asking a question that might unearth something they care about such as those in the "Ask questions" paragraph above.

Do not-so-random acts of kindness. The old saw that it feels better to give than to receive tends to be true: When we give, we feel generous, grateful that we have enough to be able to give, and often, as a bonus, we get appreciation. So whether it’s putting a quarter into a stranger's parking meter just when the meter maid is about to give a ticket, or something with more selfish potential benefit like offering to help your boss with something outside your required responsibilities, think about doing random and perhaps especially, not-random acts of kindness.

Retain foundational authenticity. Despite all these rules of the relationship road, plenty of room remains for individuality. If your core self is intellectual or emotion-centric, humorous or serious, intense or laid-back, introverted or extroverted, honor that. You ultimately will be better liked and feel better about yourself if you’re authentic in showing your foundational personality.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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