Grandma used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” We are much more willing to do something for someone we like. While that may be obvious, what is surprising is how powerful a part rapport can play in persuasion, especially when we don’t think about it. Companies such as Tupperware and Mary Kay are built on it; Joe Girard, the “world’s greatest car salesman” according to Guinness Book of World Records, became so by making friends with his customers, and then sending out monthly reminders that he liked them.
When we look at the research that has been done on likability, we’ll see that some other well-worn phrases don’t fare so well. We’ll look at seven factors that make us likeable and hence more persuasive. The first five come courtesy of Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice. (I hate the phrase, “studies show” unless it is backed up by actual references. All of the studies cited below can be referenced in his book unless otherwise referenced.)
Physical attractiveness: Life is not fair. Attractiveness is the gift that keeps giving: people who are blessed with good looks are handed many other advantages. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that good-looking people get more job offers, get paid more, are more likely to get elected to public office, and even get lighter sentences in criminal cases. Even newborn babies have been shown to prefer more attractive faces!
Although you can’t do much to change your physical attributes, you can control your dress and grooming. In one study, grooming was found to be more important than job qualifications in hiring decisions. In real estate, it’s called “curb appeal” and it equally applies to you.
Similarity: Opposites attract? Don’t believe it. We like people who are similar to us in background, age, gender, appearance, etc. Similarity of background was found to be the most important predictor of sales success in a study of life insurance agents, for example. This makes logical sense, because we feel that if someone is like us they tend to think the same way and hence their thinking must be right. But similarity can have a subconscious effect as well. One researcher was able to double response rates on a survey just by making the name on the request letter similar to the name of the addressee.
You can’t change your name, you should try to reach the other person personally in addition to the business level. It’s OK—and usually recommended—to make “small talk” in meetings and conversations rather than getting right down to business. Look for and stress similarities between yourself and your listener.
Compliments: This one hurts me to write it. The old saying, “flattery will get you nowhere”, is usually untrue. As distasteful as it may seem, people who compliment others are seen as more likeable, even when the recipient of the compliment is aware of the ulterior motive behind the compliment. Think about a compliment from the point of view of the receiver: you can either take it at face value, and feel good about yourself, or see it as untrue. Which is the more likely choice?
You need to decide how comfortable you are with using this technique. Even if you would never give an insincere compliment, at least you know that giving a sincere one won’t instantly make you a brown-noser. If you do plan on using this technique, here’s a scholarly paper that shows you how to do it the right way.
Contact: “Face-time” with the person you want to persuade improves rapport, as well as giving you more opportunities to work on getting their agreement. The old saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is usually not true. The number of exposures to something affects how positively it is perceived. What does that mean to you? If you want to be influential in your organization, find as many opportunities as possible to be near the people you want to influence, while bearing in mind the next principle:
Association with positive things: There’s a reason so many ads use attractive people or celebrities to sell their products—we tend to like things and people who are connected with positive associations. The idea that people don’t like bearers of bad news is a reflection of this rule in reverse. Try to bring good news as much as possible, or be associated in that person’s mind with happy occasions, etc.
These five factors can have a powerful effect on your persuasive power. But in the end, they are only superficial. Deep and enduring rapport depends on the way you treat others, which brings me to two fundamental habits that will do more for you than the first five combined:
Be genuinely interested in others as people. People need to feel important: they need to be treated with respect, consideration and courtesy. This does not mean you have to become their bosom buddy or get overly personal, but it does mean you should relate to them as a person. This is more real, and deeper, than mere flattery.
Some people tend to view others instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end, rather than as individuals with their own aspirations, feelings and needs. Of course, the essence of persuasion is getting something through the actions of another, so it’s hard not to view others as an instrument. But when we treat them only as a means to an end, we lose persuasive effectiveness in the long run because they become suspicious of our motives and may view their acquiescence as a gift to us or something they had no choice but to do, which creates a sense of obligation. By asking less, you get more.
Listen more. This final principle will do more to build rapport than any of the others. Listening is the best compliment you can give another; it’s the best way to make them feel important. In this age of continuous partial attention, I firmly believe that real listening is becoming rarer and hence more valuable than ever before. When was the last time someone put aside all distractions and just listened to you—how did it make you feel? Put down the Blackberry when you’re talking to someone; turn your chair so you can’t see your computer screen when you’re on the phone.
Listening is the easiest to remember—but the hardest to do consistently. When you are in a hurry to ask someone to do something for you, it can be easy to skip the listening. It’s hard work that can take all of your concentration. But it will do more for you than anything else to be better-liked.