What Makes Attentive People More Persuasive?

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on November 23, 2008

Observe people closely and you discover just how unique we all truly are.  Everyone of us is one of a kind, and cannot be duplicated – even if cloned.  It’s one of those ironic things that we all have in common, and a powerful key to the art of persuasion.


In the presence of your genuine affection and interest, that which is special in people tends to blossom and grow.  When you connect personally with people, it’s because you are able to move quickly past the general and recognize some of the specifics of who they are.  The more you discover about what they are all about, the more you can genuinely get to know them as individuals.  The more known they are by you,  the more they feel they know you, too.  Listening is how you learn about a person’s unique way of being in the world.  

Now it’s also true that, generally speaking, people are incredibly alike and incredibly predictable.  Listen closely and you will notice the same patterns present themselves again and again.  The pattern is the same, and the person is different.   So what makes people special?   Special is in the details, not in the generalizations.  When it comes to making people feel special, it’s the little things that count the most! 

Listen closely and you can hear how it’s the little things that add up for people–for better or for worse.    For example, people only need 2 or 3 examples of you showing an interest in something special to them to decide that you are someone special.   And they only need 2 or 3 examples of you failing to show an interest when they think something is special for them to decide that you aren’t someone special to them.  Each time you treat someone well, and it is better than they expected, you’re building their generalization about you. Each time you ask someone a question, and it concerns something that matters to them, you’re building the generalization.  Once your attentiveness puts that generalization in their minds, they’ll begin to look for evidence to prove it to themselves.   Now, how long does it take in any relationship before someone forms a generalization?  Perhaps this is where we get the idea that the third time’s the charm.  

A rose by any other name still smells as sweet.  Yet names and titles matter to people.  They are handles for identity, for accomplishment, for who we are, and how we want to be addressed.  You may have met people in your life who took liberties with your name, who assigned you a nickname that didn’t fit, or that you didn’t care for at all.  Yet most people won’t tell you when they’re unhappy with the name you call them. They might hold it against you instead.    As an attentive person, you notice how people introduce themselves, and let that be your guide in addressing them, at least initially.  If you want to switch from a formal name to a more informal one, you ask permission, which is another way to make people feel special. 

Small talk is something little that makes a big impression.  It is also a big challenge for many, because they are uncomfortable starting a conversation.   It’s not hard to understand why.   It turns out that not everyone likes small talk, and those who don’t like it discourage others from engaging in it.   If you grew up around someone with this constraint on relationships, you might have internalized it.  

Here’s what you need to know.  Most people do like small talk, particularly when it is about themselves.  So being attentive to people means trying to engage them in talking about themselves.  Those who don’t like talking about themselves will try to turn the conversation back to you.  In that case, use what you say to bring up material to ask them about.  “I’ve been to Bali, Hong Kong and Singapore. What about you?  Have you ever traveled to Asia?”

Ah, but what to talk about!  So much, actually, and so little time.  The first key to small talk is knowing the four small talk domains that you can explore with just about anyone.  Work.  Family.  Hobbies.  Culture.  The second key to small talk is having at least four open-ended questions that you can ask about any one of these domains.   Here are some conversation-starting questions.   

Work:  ‘What do you do?  What have you done?”

Family:  “Where are you from?  Who in your family is still there?”

Hobbies:  “What do you enjoy?  What do you like most about it?”

Culture:  “What do you think about….?

Life:   If you could go anywhere or do anything, where would you go and what would you do?  

Want to start more generally still?  

Everyone has a story to tell.  The goal of your attention may be to find that story.  When you get people talking about themselves and their unique experiences, they experience being special around you, and you learn how their world is put together. 

Try this.  Next time you’re sitting next to someone on a plane or a bus or in a restaurant, turn to them, ask permission “Mind if I ask you a question?,”  and then and ask one of the open-ended questions I’ve provided.  You may find in them the potential to reveal something unique about the person. 

Maybe they’ll shrug you off.  But maybe they’ll take the bait and tell you something about themself that is unique, special, and even unexpected. And just maybe you will walk away with a great story to tell.  And maybe they will too…about a total stranger who asked them the most interesting question.     

How do you make people feel special with your attention?  I’ve love to hear your unique comments!

be well,


Previous post:

Next post: