We’ve all heard that little voice in the back of our minds that whispers, “People don’t like me.” And every time we manage to make a good impression with someone new, most of us can’t help but feel like Sally Field in her famous Oscars acceptance speech: “You like me! Right now, you like me!” First impressions are nerve-racking social experiences everyone undergoes on a regular basis, so the relief when it actually goes well is immense.
Whether it’s a job interview, first date or introduction between friends, your mind can start reeling with anxiety the second you’ve stopped chatting. Did I say the right thing? Did I seem nice enough and smart enough? Did they like me?
According to a one study, however, we should all be cutting ourselves a lot more slack. Psychologists from Harvard University, Cornell University, University of Essex in England, and Yale University co-authored the research published in Psychological Science. In it, they observed the interactions between first-year college students getting to know their dorm mates and other students, faculty members getting acquainted in their laboratories and strangers from the general public partaking in a personal development workshop. Ultimately they found that most of the participants believed they came off much worse than their conversation partners actually felt.
The same rang true for all personality types, not just those who are naturally anxious or shy. While speaking with Time, Harvard psychiatrist and co-author of the study Gus Cooney explained: “We don’t know what other people are thinking, and so we substitute our own thoughts about ourselves for what other people think. We’re basically projecting what we think of our own performance, and assume that’s what other people think of us.”
The researchers call this the “liking gap,” defining it as people’s systematic underestimation of how much conversation partners actually liked interacting with them. Cooney says this is the “little voice” in our head that starts whispering to us as soon as we end an interaction. Cooney and the research also suggests we remain “suspicious of this voice and its accuracy.”
Of course, changing the “channel” in your mind is easier said than done—that’s why we asked top communication experts for easy strategies that will help you not only silence self-doubt, but also make the most out of first impressions and create deeper connections.
1. Amp up your ‘3 pillars’ of charm
The key tent-poles of charisma, says body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma are: “likability, attractiveness and power.” And showing off each one is easier than you may think.
“We like people who are similar to us,” Wood explains. “So, if you’re at a party, mirror others’ body language. And if someone is a slow-talker, take your time and kind of ‘match’ their pace.” This will instantly increase your likability.
As for attractiveness, people are drawn to what Wood calls “up posture”: the effervescence you exude when you put your shoulders back, open up your stance and smile.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the charm formula is its last component, power — and it’s not about your power. “It’s about making the other person feel powerful by doing one thing: holding eye contact,” Wood explains. “This is what the most charismatic people do naturally.” She explains that simply holding the other person’s gaze makes him or her feel respected — a feeling that’s then reflected back onto you.
2. Make a two-minute ‘mingle goal’
A common fear? “What if I have nothing to talk about…and people don’t like me?” Just plan ahead by reading your favorite blog or looking over a few of the stories in a magazine to “collect” conversation topics, suggests Kurt Mortensen, expert on persuasion, charisma and influence, and author of Maximum Influence: The 12 Universal Laws of Power Persuasion.
“Visualize yourself having a good time, chatting with people and smiling. Then make a small goal: Tell yourself you’ll talk to one person within two minutes of arriving at the get-together. After taking that one small ‘baby step,’ people feel so good about themselves, it keeps them going!”
3. Charm anyone with the golden rule of funny
The universal icebreaker that makes others like you instantly? Humor! And tapping your inner comedienne is as easy as one, two, three, promises Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. Think of it as one: normal, two: normal, three: funny. So, the first two things you say should be pretty normal to establish a clear picture in the listener’s mind — then the third thing you say should be a surprise, usually resulting in laughter. For example, if someone asks you what you want for Christmas, you could say, “slippers, a scarf . . . and the winning lottery numbers!” (To stock up on some good funnies, click through to our sister magazine’s 28 Best Dad Jokes.)
4. Grab their attention with ‘Story Speak’
“All conversation is an exchange of stories and ideas to build relationships and learn new things,” observes Nicholas Boothman, author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less. If you want to come across as charismatic, spice up your talk with ‘Story Speak’: the basic tools from the greatest storytellers’ bag of tricks. How? “Start with the who, where and when—the most important ingredients of any satisfying story If you’re telling a story about the time the airline destroyed your luggage, for example, first tease your listeners with something like, ‘Let me tell you about the craziest thing that happened to me at the airport last Friday.’” Then tell your story with a couple of sensory details to hook the listener.
So, if you’re talking about how your suitcase appeared on the baggage carousel open, with your slippers jammed against the conveyor belt, paint a picture by describing the slippers as fuzzy and pink. “Then punctuate your anecdote with a question like, ‘What would you have done in this situation?‘ And finish with a lesson learned: ‘Next time you’d better believe I’m using a bigger suitcase!’” Says Boothman, “The more vividly and simply you can describe these experiences, the more people will find you interesting and amusing!”
5. Don’t be afraid to go deeper
“We often hesitate to initiate deeper conversations because we expect those conversations to be awkward, and expect that others might be indifferent to what we share with them during the conversation,” says Michael Kardas, PhD, researcher at NorthwesternUniversity’s Kellogg School of Management. “But our research finds that others tend to care more about our statements during a deep conversation than we expect, and that deep conversations feel less awkward than expected as a result.”
When you find yourself searching for connection, don’t be afraid to take the conversational plunge and ask people more meaningful questions. That’s the lesson Kardas took from his study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Our experiments showed people are happier and more engaged when they skip small talk like, ‘How is your day?’ and instead ask deeper questions like, ‘What do you feel grateful for?’” He says he was surprised by how quickly surface chit chat can grow into something more profound, as it takes just a few questions for people to really open up.
This finding hints at the fact that deeper dialogue is something we’re hardwired to crave. “One of my favorite questions is, ‘What is something you’ve learned about yourself or the world recently?’” he reveals. When we ask questions that speak to people’s goals and values, the core principles that make us who we are, our conversations boost our happiness by making us feel seen.
6. Diffuse difficult first impressions
In the end, despite our best efforts, not all first impressions go swimmingly — but there are ways to salvage them and make even the prickliest people like you more. It all starts with what is arguably the most powerful pronoun for communicating effectively: “we,” reveals negotiation expert William Ury, PhD, cofounder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation and author of Getting to Yes.
If you’re dealing with difficult people, for example, instead of using the word you, which can sound accusatory, simply shift to the more collaborative we, by saying something like “How can we solve this problem?” Such open-ended questions are particularly helpful, says Ury, adding that one of the most effective magic words isn’t a word at all — it’s silence.
“When dealing with difficult people, try to talk less by using open-ended phrases that’ll get the other person talking more, such as ‘Help me understand what you need,’ or ‘What’s your concern here?’ The whole idea behind negotiating is that you change the game by changing the frame.” In other words, just shifting focus from you to them will help you take control of the situation and make others respond to and like you more.