This is the third in a series on under-discussed keys to success and contentment. The first was about titration: the skill of consciously decide how intense, intellectual, or perfectionistic to be in a given situation situation. The second installment was on becoming more resilient.
Here, I turn to the art of making others feel good about themselves. Of course, this was popularized long ago in Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which now, 82 years after its publication, is the 11th most read of Amazon.com’s 11 million books.
But in today’s era of insecurity, in which everyone is expected to do more, better, faster, and others’ Facebook profiles make us feel inferior and thus perhaps more self-absorbed, it may be worth a reminder on the importance of erring on the side of making people feel good.
Of course, there is a time for making a person feel bad, for example, when supervising a weak employee and your repeated kind words, encouragement, and efforts to “catch them doing something right” have been met only with complacency.
But we are wise to default to making others feel good about themselves. That’s not just because they’ll likely be nicer to us and do our bidding. It’s just humane—why not default toward making people feel better? Key to making that happen is taking that fraction of a second before speaking to ask yourself, “Will this likely make the person feel good or bad?” And if it’s “bad,” take another moment to consider whether that’s wise.
Some people naturally tend to make people feel good about themselves. This article is for the rest of us. These principles should help:
Demonstrate common ground. Especially if you’re in a loftier position, a person will appreciate your pointing out your similarities, for example, a shared hobby, that you own similar clothing, etc. That principle redounds even to very basic things. When I walk my dog, if a fellow dog walker says how cute he is (and he is,) if at all possible, I say something like, “Yours is no slouch either.” Of course, bragging is the opposite. No matter how excellent you are at something, saying, “I’m pretty darn good at X” will be a turnoff, making the person feel one-down.
Let them save face. When someone errs, it’s tempting to play gotcha. Rarely is it worth it. More often, it’s wise to ignore an error and certainly not pound away at it. If a person forgot something, it’s usually wise to ignore it or say, “No biggie.” It’s especially risky to criticize someone in a meeting. Consider whether it’s wiser to do it privately or even to let the issue go.
Ask about them. We tend to be wrapped up in ourselves. So asking a question or two beyond the obligatory, “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” makes a person feel good. For example, remembering that on Friday your co-worker said that the in-laws were visiting this weekend, and on Monday your asking, “How’d it go with the in-laws?” makes the person feel cared about.
Praise but with moderation. Too frequent and/or too effusive praise quickly cheapens. Yes, look for opportunities to praise but realize that just as a government that prints too many dollars makes each dollar worth less, so are compliments too often dispensed.
Actions do often speak louder than words. Actions as small as nodding at a person’s comment at a meeting or picking the lint off a colleague’s shoulder (beware that it doesn’t even hint of sexual harassment) says, “I like you.” That can’t help but make them feel good about themselves and like you better. One of my favorite such actions is to write a thank-you note. Usually, I do it by email but if I want to make it special, I hand-write it on a nice note card. Few people write thank-you notes so I don’t expect to receive them. This is an example of where the joy of giving usually must be sufficient reward.
Before speaking or acting, take that fraction of a second to assess whether to make the person feel good or not, erring on the side of yes.