Conversation Personal Branding

How to be likeable – a recipe from an FBI behavioral expert

Meeting people can be awkward, especially when you deal with people at work you barely even know. 

What should you say to create a positive impression? What can you do to build a rapport with someone and create trust between the two of you? 

Robin Dreeke, a Human Engineering and Behavioral Analysis expert and the retired head of The FBI Behavioral Analysis Program, understands exactly how our brains work while interacting with other people. Here is his recipe for becoming a likeable person, which comes from his book, entitled ’It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.’

#1 Ask about someone’s opinion and don’t judge

Talking about ourselves seems interesting and we love doing that. There are even some studies that prove this activity gives us a lot of satisfaction. It triggers the same sensation of pleasure in our brains as food or money. But unfortunately only to ourselves. What should we do instead in order to make others feel good? To trigger positive feelings while having a conversation.

“Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.”

The number one strategy to listen to people, ask them question and here comes the hardest part – don’t judge them. People don’t like to be judged on any of their thoughts, opinions or actions. Yet I sometimes see people who cannot resist adding just a “tiny” personal judgment. Imagine that someone in the social room tells you that he or she’s gone vegan lately and doesn’t eat meat at all. And someone else instantly responds that it’s weird and it doesn’t make any sense, since it’s impossible to get all the macronutrients without eating meat! What a beautiful remark, isn’t it?

When you judge people’s opinions, there’s a chance you’ll create unnecessary boundaries. You’ll feel superior and the other person will feel inferior, and the fact is you simply have different points of view. That’s the biggest obstacle in creating positive relationships.

Be interested and curious about what the other person is telling you instead. And if that person has a totally different point of view, that’s still great. You can then learn something new and understand someone else’s opinion. Otherwise, you’ll be exposed to the echo chamber effect, which kills your development. 

#2 Forget about your ego

Now we move on to the next problem which is partly related to the first problem. Your ego. There’s something frustrating in us. It’s that feeling that we get while having a conversation and we’re just dying to point out someone else is wrong. We have to mention that someone made a mistake, misunderstood something or said something incorrectly even if that stops the whole discussion. 

How often can you hear two people talking and suddenly one person changes the focus because of some minor mistake? Like when one person is explaining something and the other guy stops him and says: “Oh, you should pronounce that word differently”. Such a harsh stopper hijacks the whole discussion and doesn’t let people to get emotional during a conversation. It simply kills the vibe. And you know what? Even though you can be right, people will try to defend their opinions and behaviors. We are great at ignoring facts, so such remarks won’t change the world at all.

Suspend your ego and your need to correct other people. It definitely won’t help you build a friendly image and it won’t make people like you even though you might be right.

#3 Listen truly

You’ve probably heard that one before. Listening skills are vital to your professional and personal life and you need to listen twice as much as you speak. But there is not too much information on what it really means and how to improve your listening. Let me explain it, then.

First of all, listening is not about staying silent. It’s about having nothing to say when your interlocutor has the floor. You need to get rid of the temptation to think about what to say next while someone is talking to you. As human beings we’re not particularly good at multitasking. It’s been proved that managing two activities at the same time decreases our attention [2]. It means that while you formulate your own response, you aren’t able to truly listen to another person.

What I suggest you do is to hold off with your thoughts just for a while. Tell yourself consciously that you’re not going to break the flow of a conversation just to share your own opinion. Ask yourself the following questions instead:

  • What idea or thought is interesting to you?
  • What would you like to explore more?

While listening to another person, don’t interrupt them, don’t disagree and don’t evaluate. Just let them explain their thoughts freely, pay attention to their words and stay fascinated. I know it can be hard for some people, but you cannot just fake it.

#4 Questions worth asking

Asking questions is the most powerful tool that you can use to build relationships with people. They let you keep a conversation going and they make it interesting. But they also make the other person feel important. If you ask questions, it means you care. That works only if your curiosity is authentic, though.

There is a study [3] which proved that asking people to share more details increases the likeability. That’s why you should ask follow-up questions and keep the flow of a conversation. Show a genuine interest in another person and his or her thoughts. The article on how to ask great questions can help you dig deeper into that topic.

#5 Ask for advice

Next and even more powerful strategy is to ask for advice. It sounds a bit pretentious, but we admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice. It’s one of the techniques that allow you to get someone’s attention instantly even that person wasn’t willing to do so before.

ask for advice

According to Adam Grant [4], an organizational psychologist, when we give our time, energy, and knowledge to help others, we maintain the belief that they’re worthy. If they ask us for advice, they deserve our attention and we’ll probably end up liking each other. It automatically creates interpersonal bonds.

“(…) research shows that people who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are actually rated more favorably by supervisors than those who never seek advice and help.”

Asking for advice is a subtle way to make the other person commit to us. But keep in mind that it only works when you ask for advice genuinely. If they notice you’ve got some malicious intent or you just pretend to be friendly, then you won’t establish a positive relationship. You’ll just be wasting their time. 

#6 Mind your body language

Ok, so you know how to talk to people. Your words are positive, you don’t judge, don’t criticize and you can keep the conversation going. But that’s not everything. Your words need to match your body language. But what does it mean from an FBI behavioral expert’s perspective?

  • The number one thing is you’ve gotta smile
  • Keep that chin angle down
  • Keep your palms up as you’re talking
  • You don’t want to be too upfront with people, too in their face

The number one rule is you have to smile. It’s the best way to show you’ve got a positive attitude and to establish trust. There are numerous papers which clearly prove that smile affects the way we are perceived by others.

One study [5] even determined that the intensity of a smile affects the perceptions of warmth and competence. Broad smiles are judged as warmer but less competent than the slight and delicate smiles. That’s why if you are in a business setting discussing strategic investments, use a rather moderate smile. It’ll make you look friendly but professional.

#7 Watch out for stress generating gestures

Always make sure that you create a positive vibe. It’ll make a conversation easy and relaxed. Use open and comfortable non-verbal gestures. Most gestures which seem elevating are considered positive. The most important rule is to get rid of gestures that are associated with stress, that is, the ones that echo the actions of smashing and destroying.

“Anything that is compressing: lip compression, eyebrow compression, where you’re squishing down, that’s conveying stress.”

They can make your conversation partner uncomfortable and stressed. When you point your hands down, point your fingers or slap the table, you won’t be considered friendly but rather dangerous. I know that gestures work best when they’re natural and used unconsciously. But try to get rid of the aggressive ones. That will lead to the improvement of your conversation technique.

Summing up

Keep in mind that the most important quality associated with likeability is trustworthiness. Without it you can forget about creating positive relationships. The above-mentioned techniques are not tricks but rather supplements to your personality.


[1] Robin K. Dreeke. (2013). It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone. People Formula.

[2] Remington, Roger & Loft, Shayne. (2014). Attention and multitasking. American Psychological Association.

[3] K. Huang, M. Yeomans, A.W. Brooks, J. Minson, F. Gino. (2017). It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-asking Increases Liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[4] Adam Grant. (2013). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Viking

[5] Wang, Ze & Mao, Huifang & Li, Yexin & Liu, Fan. (2017). Smile Big or Not? Effects of Smile Intensity on Perceptions of Warmth and Competence. Journal of Consumer Research. 43. 787-805. 10.1093/jcr/ucw062.