Saying This One Sentence Can Make You 19% More Likable
What makes someone incredibly likable? The list is nearly endless (from physical attractiveness to optimizing personal space to finding commonalities and more). But one characteristic that is virtually guaranteed to make us likable is when others feel that we truly understand them. That can be as simple as uttering the sentence, “I can really put myself in your shoes.” And as you’re going to see, that sentence is actually backed by research.
When someone feels like we truly understand their perspective, they tend to like us. Perspective-taking, as it’s technically known, generally shows up when we’re in conversation with another person. If we’re talking to a friend, colleague, boss, etc., and they feel like we have truly put ourselves in their shoes, they’re most likely going to like us.
Now, I’m not talking about some bad caricature of active listening, where we nod vigorously and mindlessly grunt, "Uh-huh," "sure," "I see," and so on. Because that is not perspective-taking or listening empathetically.
Perspective-taking is seeing the world, or a particular situation, from another person’s viewpoint. Atticus Finch, the moral guide and conscience in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, sets perspective-taking as a key life lesson for his daughter when he tells her, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” George Herbert Mead, the great American philosopher called perspective-taking "the capacity to take the role of the other and to adopt alternative perspectives vis a vis oneself." And the legendary psychologist Carl Rogers said it’s to “perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy, and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto, as if one were the person, but without ever losing the 'as if' condition."
Now, there are quite a few people who could use some help with perspective-taking. Across the thousands of people who’ve taken the free online test “Do You Know How To Listen With Empathy?” about a third of respondents failed pretty badly. And only about 20% of people achieved perfect scores. So we’ve still got some room to grow.
One of the most important studies on perspective-taking comes from a team of researchers at UCLA (including the well-known Noah Goldstein). They conducted six different experiments to assess what happens when a person feels like someone took their perspective. And, no surprise, every single experiment found that people feel great when someone takes their perspective. Several of the experiments didn’t even tell subjects that the other person was successful in taking their perspective (e.g., maybe they tried but failed to put themselves into our shoes). But it didn’t matter. As long as subjects believed that the other person made the effort to try, they experienced more liking, empathy and generosity towards the perspective taker.
But after a few of those experiments, the researchers took it a step further. Subjects were asked to write an essay describing a time a boss had treated them unfairly. Believing that another person was reading their essay (it was really just the researchers), one group of subjects was told that the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, but I just couldn’t put myself in their shoes.” The other group was told the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, and I could really put myself in their shoes.” When people heard that the reader had successfully taken their perspective, they liked that person 19% more. And they felt 78% more empathy towards them.
If you’re wondering whether any of this led to tangible benefits, all subjects were told that they would be playing a game with the reader. They were informed that whoever won the game would be entered into a drawing to win money and that the person who went first in the game had the best chance of winning. The researchers then offered the subjects the choice of whether they wanted to go first (and be more likely to win money) or give up their turn to the reader (and be less likely to win money). The subjects who were told that the reader successfully took their perspective were 59% more likely to give up their turn (and cost themselves a better chance of winning money)! And all because they believed that reader took their perspective.
If you can take another person’s perspective—if you stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes—the odds of them liking you skyrocket.
One final thought: One study, called “Why CEOs Get Fired,” found that the top executive often gets fired for issues unrelated to financial performance. In fact, we found that the top two reasons for CEO firings were "poor change management" and "ignoring customers." And both of those issues are almost entirely exercises in perspective-taking. So this isn’t some touchy-feely topic with no practical application to real-life. Perspective-taking is a big key to executive success.