When former President George H.W. Bush passed away on November 30, 2018, I was surprised to find out that one of my relatives had not only met the president personally back in the 1990s, but she had the pictures to prove it. The relative in question raved about how George H.W. Bush greeted her.
“When he met with me, it felt like I was the only person in the room.”
This is high praise … especially given that the relative is a very liberal Democrat who disagreed with many of Bush’s policies.
And yet clearly the elder Bush was onto something, something I’ve heard repeated about other charismatic politicians. The ability to make a person feel like they’re “the only one in the room” seems to be a central component for many successful people. It can open important doors and even be life-changing in some instances.
So how does one do that? How do you go about having that kind of connection with people?
Here are four suggestions.
Tip 1: Information is Good
There is no substitute for information. The more you know about the person you’re going to talk to, the better equipped you are to connect well with a person.
Let’s start with a name. Dale Carnegie, author of the legendary How to Win Friends and Influence People, once pointed out that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When you can address a person by their name, you’ve set the table by communicating their most important words. Little things like correct pronunciation and preferred name (i.e. “Jonathan” vs. “Jon” vs. “Mr. Smith” vs. “Dr. Smith”) show that you care enough about this most important word to know it and use it correctly. Whether you learn this ahead of time or ask of the person, it’s an important building block.
Knowing other details can also be extremely helpful. Things like a person’s job status, marital status, beliefs, attitudes, and even how their day is going can be powerful tools. You may not always be in a position to ask about these things — and you don’t even necessarily have to talk about them — but knowing them can not only help you open up positive conversations with the other person but avoid negative ones, which is just as important. If you know, for example, that the person is unemployed, this can help you avoid the awkward reply after you ask about their job.
Tip 2: Ask Questions (And Listen Intently)
My relative who met George H.W. Bush noted that, when talking to him, “He was interested in what you were saying, and he listened intently.”
There is so much buried in that simple phrase.
We tend to think that, because politicians love to talk in front of cameras, that talking is what politicians do in private. Sometimes that’s true … but it’s also true that politicians who have a reputation for verbally running over people in private are often not very well liked either by their colleagues or by those who come into contact with them.
On the other hand, politicians who are skilled at doing just the opposite in private — not running over people — can actually be more influential in the long run.
The key is to get the other person to talk.
That is relatively straightforward. After all, everyone loves to talk about something. This is true of both extroverts and introverts. (In fact, the latter can be quite chatty in the right circumstances.) The key is to ask the questions that bring out the thing that person loves to talk about. It could be about themselves, or a hobby, or a passion, or an idea. It could be a concrete subject or an abstract philosophical thought.
If you want a person to feel like they’re the only person in the room, open up the door for them to talk about something that they love to talk about. Ask them about it.
Then, once you’ve asked the questions, listen. Listen carefully, and listen intently.
Show it in your body language, by facing the person and putting away distractions.
And show it in your words, by demonstrating that you’re listening. When you talk, use it as an opportunity to repeat back what they said to you, or to ask follow-up questions based on what you’ve said. Both of those show that you not only care, but care enough to repeat the words that the other person has chosen to say to you.
Tip 3: Don’t Make it About Yourself
This is hard for most people, and for a lot of reasons. I mean, if most people like to talk about themselves … well, you probably want to talk about yourself! Maybe something they said reminds you of a similar experience, or the topic isn’t entirely of interest to you.
There’s nothing abnormal about that. It isn’t wrong at all to have the desire to share who you are. And if the person asks about you, answering their questions can be a way of deepening your connection with another person.
Alternatively, you might disagree with the person. Maybe you desperately want to tell them that, or you feel like saying nothing is the same as agreeing with them.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either. And there may be some instances where you have to, on principle, politely disagree with a person.
But if your primary goal is to make a person feel like they’re the “only person in the room,” it’s important to make sure you don’t get in the way. In other words, don’t sabotage the other person by one-upping them or diminishing their importance or arguing with them.
That’s especially true if you disagree. There are, after all, ways to politely disagree on some areas while also trying to find common ground. This isn’t easy, but it can be done, especially if you’re armed with the right information as talked about in Tip #1. If, for example, you know why a person believes what they believe, it puts you in a much better position to dialogue about the issue than it would be if you’re simply arguing facts, which, more often than not, simply causes people to dig in their heels.
Tip 4: Let Them Know their Time Was Appreciated
First impressions matter. So do last ones. Make sure that your parting communicates how much you appreciate what they’ve said. Telling them, “thank you for taking the time to talk to me” or “I appreciate you being honest with me” or “thank you for sharing that story with me” are ways to show that you truly valued their words. And following it up with a simple parting like “Have a good day” or “Thank you for coming by” can also be valuable. A smile on their face as they leave can linger for a long time.
Thoughts? What do you do to make a person feel like the only person in a room? What have others done to make you feel that way?