One of the oldest questions that everybody in the self-help/relationship advice circuit gets is “I like this person, how do I get her to like me?”
Now granted, there are a myriad number of answers ranging from the obvious – “try using your wit and charm” – to the arcane – “Take her through the emotional progression model; by the time you get to C3, it’ll be time to enter the seduction stage” and the profoundly useless – “Buy her enough shit until you’ve maxed out your social meter with her and she’ll sleep with you.”
We all have those friends who network the way other people breathe, making friends with ease and charming the pants off people – sometimes literally – while leaving the rest of us in jaw-dropped wonder and jealousy. Of course, when you ask them about it, either they can’t explain it – “I just… talk…. I guess?” or their inner workings are so idiosyncratic that the first step to recreating it is “Be that person,” which is about as helpful as saying “Go that way really fast. When you see something in your way… turn.”
Truthfully though, the key to getting people to like you is actually very simple… it’s just that most of us don’t realize it when we’re doing it. Once you understand how to build rapport with somebody, you’ll find that you’ve gotten an instant bonus to your charisma check.
The Secret To Charisma
Contrary to what Paula Abdul may have taught us, opposites do not, in fact, attract.
In fact, we’re most attracted to people who are like us. Now, this isn’t to say that we’re all doomed to date our clones; we need to have enough in common that we feel a connection. Humans tend to be tribal creatures, and we often divide the world into “Us” and “Not Us”. When we’re trying to get to know somebody, we’re looking for a signifier that we’re of the same “tribe”, no matter how small.
Ever watch a pair of total strangers bond instantly over Doctor Who? Then you’ve seen this happen: they’ve found their similarities in getting the worst case of the Feels after finding out what happened to Amy and Rory. This is part of why geeks will often talk amongst their friends in nothing but references; by sharing inside jokes, they’re reaffirming that they’re part of the same group and reveling in their mutual love for the works of Joss Whedon or the Chris Claremont/John Byrne-era X-Men comics.
The key to charisma, to getting people to like you, is to establish that yes, you are the same in all of these myriad ways. Some of them are subtle and some are overt, but they all have the same goal: showing that the two of you are similar indeed.
Match Their Energy
The first step in establishing rapport with somebody is to be on their level, energy-wise. By energy I mean the level of intensity and enthusiasm you’re bringing to the interaction – your level of excitement, the speed and emphasis with which you speak… all of this needs to be congruent not only with where you are but the person you’re interacting with. After all, if you’re at a high-energy dance and you’re hanging around in the corner like Eeyore’s little black rain-cloud, people are going to wonder why the hell you’re there; you’re simply not congruent with your surroundings.
When you’re first approaching somebody, you want to match their energy level; if they’re calm or laid back, you want to be calm and laid back as well. If they’re excited and bouncy, then it’s better for you to be more enthusiastic and energetic. By matching their energy level, you’re helping to establish the first link that the two of you are similar.
Think about morning people; if you’re like me and are only barely human before your morning coffee, somebody who hops out of bed at 6 AM totally refreshed and ready for the cartoon birds to do her hair and make-up will inspire you to try to set them on fire with the power of your hate.
Their energy-level is night-and-day different from yours, and it’s profoundly aggravating; you may love them with all your heart, but right then, you’re contemplating how to hide the body.
So it is with discordant energy levels between two people. If she’s low-energy – even a bit dour – and you come in as perky and up-beat then all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to clash and annoy one another. If, on the other hand, you match her energy – calm, even-toned – she is far more likely to relax around you; you’re showing that you’re similar.
Ever known somebody whose energy was contagious? This is their trick: they match your energy at first, then slowly raise their own; the more you’ve connected, the more you will find that you’re raising yours to match her to keep the rapport going.
It’s a technique called “mirroring and leading”. In fact, speaking of…
Match Their Body Language
The next time you’re out and about, watch for couples who are clearly on a date. You can always tell who’s having a good time and who’s counting down the hours until the social contract says that they’re allowed to fake a call from their cat-sitter and run away screaming into the night. The couples who are deeply into each other will often have similar body language and positioning; they’ll both be leaning forward on the same arm, or angling their bodies in the same direction.
Meanwhile the bad-date couple will be completely offset from one another, possibly even starting to point away from each other.
When we like somebody, we will unconsciously adopt their body language and position; we’ll adjust how we sit to match them, lean in the same direction or shift our weight to the same foot. When they take a drink, we do as well without noticing it. We’ll match their tone of voice or the rhythm of their speech. If you’re like me, you may unconsciously pick up a bit of their accent1 We may even start tapping our foot or drumming our fingers in the same rhythm they are.
This is known as synchronization – aligning ourselves with somebody else as a way to increase rapport and find common ground… and we can do it deliberately. Just as you’re matching somebody’s energy, you want to match their body language and intonation. If they’re speaking quickly, then match them. If they’re putting their weight on one foot, match theirs. If they’re leaning back, settle back into your seat. If they speak with their hands, let yourself be more expressive and use similar gestures as you speak.
As the two of you become more in sync, you can then start to lead a little; by adjusting your body, they will start to mirror you in turn. Lean forward to show interest in what they have to say and they’ll be more likely to lean forward themselves. Open up your body language and visibly relax, and they are more likely to as well.
Keep in mind: this is supposed to be subtle. If the person you’re talking to shifts their position, you don’t want to scramble to keep up; it’s supposed to be a natural adjustment. You’re not trying to play “Man In The Mirror” acting exercises where you copy them perfectly, you’re trying to bring yourself in sync with another person as a way to build rapport. Also: this isn’t mind control, no matter how some people may pitch it; it’s simply a way of encouraging somebody to relax around you and find you more likable by establishing greater common ground.
So you’re talking to somebody, you’re synching up and you’re starting to vibe… what now? Well, now you want to find commonalities, those little things you have in common that are so critical to feeling connected to somebody.
Part of the joy of going to conventions is to revel with all these other people who are ostensibly part of your “tribe” – you’re all geeks together, freaking out over Tom Hiddleston or George RR Martin or Kingdom Hearts. It can feel like suddenly you’re surrounded by people who get you… and this can be intense when you’re one of the few geeks in your area.
That feeling that somebody just gets you on a primal level, that they can speak to some specific aspect of who you are is incredibly powerful. Finding those commonalities is a way of demonstrating that yes, you are like them, which will help build that rapport.
Some commonalities are obvious: you work in the same industry or you’re both from the same hometown. Others may be based around things you both enjoy; I’ve made friends with total strangers because we both loved Veronica Mars and Supernatural.
Those commonalities don’t necessarily have to be shared experiences or shared fandoms; sometimes it’s about subtler things. After all, friendship or romantic attraction isn’t built on liking the exact same things, it’s about finding the areas where you overlap. She may be a molecular biologist while you’re a bartender; on the surface, you have very little in common… but you have the same sarcastic sense of humor and find the same sorts of jokes hilarious. You may have a mutual love of travel or an interest in neo-classical art.
So how do we find these commonalities? Well…
Use Your Words. Use The Right Words
There’s nothing we love doing more than talking about ourselves. We appreciate it when people show an interest in us; when they want to learn more about us, we tend to like them in return. It’s actually a refreshing change from most interactions we experience in our day to day lives. More often than not, the people we meet aren’t listening so much as waiting for their chance to talk. As a result, we live in a world where nobody is actually talking to someone as talking at them. So when somebody takes the time to get to know us, it’s an unusual experience.
And of course, the best way to get somebody to talk about themselves is to ask questions. But you need to ask the right questions.
If you ever watch a skilled interviewer – somebody who’s known for their ability to get people to open up – they’re very careful to ask open questions – ones that can’t just be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. They ask what are known as “open” questions, ones that ask for greater detail or to elaborate on a topic rather than just indicating agreement. A classic example is “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living” – these are questions that aren’t easily responded to with one or two word answers and often have conversational hooks buried in them that prompt more questions – when did you move there, how’d you get into that line of work, etc.
Interestingly, you want to be careful about how you ask those questions; some words have a tendency to close down conversational threads, without necessarily intending to. Any variation on the verbs “to be” or “to do”- are, did, do, etc – tend to elicit shorter, curt responses.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Are you from here?”
… and so on. There are reasons why you don’t hear Terri Gross starting questions with these; they shut down conversational threads and leave everybody in uncomfortable silence.
The classic “journalism words” on the other hand – who, what, where, when, why, how – encourage longer and more detailed responses or explanations.
Now, no matter how much we may like talking about ourselves, going into interview mode is kind of uncomfortable; we feel less like we’re having a conversation with somebody cool and more like we’re being profiled for a study. The easiest way to avoid making someone feel like you’re grilling them for information is to ground the questions in immediate relevance by tying it to something situational or making an observation. It’s a way of reinforcing the things you have in common – your location, a shared interest – and tying it into you wanting to get to know them. You can even use a mini cold-read – an observation about someone that’s universal enough to apply to just about anyone – as a way of anchoring a question without making it sound like you’re desperate for something, anything to fill up the awkward silences.
The best part is that the more open-ended questions you ask, the more natural the conversation will feel; you’re simply spring-boarding off the things that she’s already told you and reinforcing that you’re actually listening to her rather than waiting for a pause in the conversation. It makes them feel as though they’re important – and that’s incredibly gratifying. One of the reasons why Tom Cruise is so incredibly charismatic is that he’s able to make anyone feel as if they’re the most fascinating person in the room.
And of course there’s his infamous 10,000 watt smile…
You wouldn’t think that I’d need to mention this… but all too often, I’ve seen guys doing their best Paddy O’Solemn impression when trying to talk to women they were interested in and wondering why nobody seemed to be into them. Hell, this is a problem I tend to have; I may be enjoying myself when I’m with other people, but you couldn’t tell because I have a classic case of “bitchy resting face”.
As a result… they become convinced I’m either upset or just plain don’t like them.
A sincere smile – one that engages the muscles around the eyes – makes people more attractive. Moreover, it’s actively contagious; an individual smiling encourages others to smile back… and this is important. Y’see, studies have consistently shown that when we’re smiling, we judge people and our surroundings to be more enjoyable and pleasing than when we maintain a straight face. So by smiling, you’re not only encouraging the person you’re talking to to mirror you – and reinforcing that closeness – but you’re helping them to feel more warmly inclined to you.
And that may well be the easiest way of all to develop an instant charisma boost.
- True story: I went out with friends for a bachelorette party, one of whom was from Ireland. By the time the bar closed, he and I had bonded over an obscure 80s cartoon, and I’d realized that I had been speaking with a distinct Dublin accent for the last few hours. [↩]