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Make Them Feel Important

“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”

If someone asked about the impression you made on them, would they describe you as a Gladstone or a Disraeli? We all know people like Gladstone who strive to be perceived as the smartest or most important person in the room. If that’s what you care about, stop reading now. But if you care more about getting things done through others, you should instead strive to make them feel ten feet tall.

I submit that this is especially important in today’s flatter organizations that proclaim that hierarchies are dead, that ideas are judged on their merits regardless of who brings them up. Especially when markers of status are less overt, we pay close—albeit unspoken—attention to subtle signals of our relative ranking.[1] It’s hard-wired into our brains through millennia as social animals, and no amount of corporate feel-good fables will erase it. So, one of the best ways to grow your personal influence, paradoxically, is to give it up when communicating with others.

William James said, “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” We all crave the comfortable glow of being respected and appreciated by others; when we get it, we feel good. So why not try to make others feel important? It costs us very little and means so much to them. Besides the fact that it’s the right thing to do, it makes practical sense to make others feel good about themselves when talking to us. Feeling good makes people more open-minded, more willing to listen and consider new ideas, and of course when people like us, they are much more likely to be persuaded.

The flip side of that argument, of course, is that when they feel put down, underappreciated or in a “one-down” position, they are less likely to go along. Even worse, the negative feeling can be far stronger than the corresponding positive. As in so many aspects of human nature, bad is stronger than good, and the threat to one’s self-importance is felt more intensely than the reward. According to David Rock, “the threat response is often triggered in social situations, and it tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response.” In fact, studies using functional MRIs have shown that the feeling of being excluded activates the same response in the brain as physical pain. And, when people feel threatened, their attention narrows and they are less open to new ideas. It can also feel very unfair, and people are quick to punish those they perceive as acting unfairly, even at a cost to themselves. , and Finally, if they associate you with pain, how likely are you to influence them?

Of course, most of us don’t go out of our way to alienate others, but we may do so inadvertently through inattention. And even when we don’t mess up, we may not take full advantage of ways to make the other person feel good about themselves. So it’s critical that you do everything you can to a) prevent negative feelings and b) foster positive feelings.

Prevent the bad – Don’t diminish their importance

Don’t ignore them. While this may sound obvious, it’s easy to make people feel ignored. How many times have you checked your phone while talking to someone? When meeting someone at a function, do you scan the room to see if there is someone more important to talk to? When giving a sales presentation, do you focus all your attention on the decision maker and overlook others in the room who may influence the final decision?

Don’t cross the line from confidence to cockiness, or assertiveness to aggression. This is especially important when making a first impression, because people tend to notice warmth before competence, in as little as a tenth of a sentence.[2]

Be careful about giving advice. You may think that useful advice is a gift to the other person, but keep in mind that they “pay” for the gift by granting you superior status; in other words, at that moment, they have to at least symbolically put you in a dominant position.

Foster positive feelings – Put them on a pedestal

Get to know them before you meet them. Show that you consider them important enough to prepare for.

Be present. Especially in this distracted age, full attention is the highest compliment you can pay anyone. The great thing about being present is that it’s a gift that gives back: it makes them feel important and they see you as more charismatic, according Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, The Charisma Myth.

Let others talk, and listen actively: face them squarely, don’t interrupt, encourage them to talk, and respond appropriately.

Be more interested than interesting. I got this phrase from Mark Goulston’s excellent book, Just Listen. His advice is to treat a conversation not as a tennis match in which you want to return serve with a stronger point of your own, but as a detective game in which you earn points by learning as much as you can about the other person. Follow the 51+ rule: meet them more than halfway; be curious about them…

Make them feel like an expert. Everyone knows more than you about something; find out what it is and ask them about that. Solicit their advice, and pay attention to what they say. Even when challenging their thinking by delivering new information, you can say something like, “You’re the expert in your business; how would you see this idea applying to your operations?”

One last thought: I am not advocating servile sycophancy that insincerely tells the other person only what they want to hear. The crucial point is that you must genuinely strive to find in others that which sets them apart and makes them distinctive—otherwise it can backfire on you. But when it works, it’s like a magic see-saw that elevates both sides at once.

[1] Most people tend to have an intuitive sense of this, as illustrated in research by Alison Fragale, which found that emails to peers used more deferential language than even emails to superiors.

[2] See Compelling People, by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohutt, p. 12.

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