William Cottringer

“Our brains quickly perceive others to be likeable, neutral or unlikeable; the words that follow verify that initial perception.” ~The author.

Ron and Jennifer are both successful professionals. Jennifer is on the top of her career as a CEO of a telecommunications company and Ron is a highly regarded college professor. Ron and Jennifer live at opposite sides of the country and don’t know each other, but they have a few important things in common. They both have always been inclined to want to learn, grow and improve both personally and professionally. Part of their practical education has involved the desire and effort to perfect the critical skill of communication. They both realized the importance of good communication in their personal and professional lives.

Both Ron and Jennifer also have a common fault that many of us have. They use a likable communication style most of the time as they interact with other likable people. But when they are confronted by unlikable people, they fall prey to the bad habits of unlikable communication. Using unlikable communication with unlikable people—being upset with harsh criticism and responding to weak negativity with stronger negativity—seems natural enough, but it during this very sort of interaction that likable communication can have its biggest and best impact.

There is an abundance of sound research today that links the softer skills, such as emotional competencies, social skills, and likablity with success. A person’s degree of likability and subsequent level of success depends largely on his or her ability to communicate in a likable way in all circumstances. Ron and Jennifer will achieve even greater success as they continue to expand their ability to communicate likably in every situation.

Much of the road to personal and professional development involves discovering important principles that have wide applicability in producing positive change. One of the most important principles I learned long ago has to do with communication. The principle is that a supportive, likable tone results in open communication that strengthens interpersonal relationships, while a defensive, unlikable one closes communication that weakens our relationships.

In communicating, we convey two levels of meaning through what we are saying and how we say it. What we say is our message content and how we say it is our message style. A likable or unlikable tone can be inferred from both the content and style levels of meaning. "Meaning" much different from what we really intend can be "added" by misinterpreted words, certain word connotations, contradictory or misperceived non-verbal clues, or the overall tone of our communication. A person can have great information and the best intentions, but unlikable behaviors such as pessimism, arrogance and rudeness can get in the way and spoil the results.

There are certain things we can say or do that tend to produce either a supportive, likable tone that encourages open communication or a defensive, unlikable one that shuts down dialogue. Below are the ten behaviors that typically make up a positive, likable tone of communication that assures a more accurate, clear, complete and mutually beneficially exchange of information. These behaviors will improve interpersonal relationships and lead to success.


The cornerstone of likable communication is good listening. Good listening ability is not something you acquire without significant effort. To listen well enough to truly understand someone else you have to learn many difficult behaviors such as giving 100% of your attention, disregarding your own urgent need to interrupt, and tuning out competing distractions. You also have to learn how to ask the right questions, be more patient than you feel like being, control your tendency to judge, and avoid being over-influenced by incorrect or incomplete perceptions.

Learning to be a good listener has big payoffs. First, it conveys respect to the other person and respect is something we all want. Secondly, good listening is the best vehicle to empathy, which always brings you closer to understanding and getting along with another person. Thirdly, good listening is what gives you the information you need to make the best response in the conversation. Finally, other people like good listeners more than talkers or interrupters.


I have studied "likability" extensively, mainly in an attempt to identify the common behaviors that most influence people into perceiving another as likable or unlikable. The number one behavior that I have consistently found to most influence people in seeing another as likable is honesty. The converse is also true. Perceived dishonesty quickly leads people to a judgment of unlikability.

Honesty is clearly a critical value common to most people. It is probably the hallmark of good communication and effective interpersonal relationships. Dishonest communication quickly sets up a defensive tone that shuts down further communication. This is probably due to the fact that we often personalize the experience. For instance, when we notice the other person beginning to tell lies, it may quickly remind us of a marriage failure that started out that way. We then quickly feel all the negative emotions associated with that earlier experience.

Other researchers have pointed out that “little white lies” are not generally interpreted as unlikable. Evidently this type of dishonesty appears to be acceptable. The reason may be tied to the actual impact of what is being said. If such little white lies are delivered with good intentions—“Yes you look good today” (when the person doesn’t look good in your opinion), devoid of deception and harm, the words don’t detract from likability.


People do not respond very well to others who they perceive to be conceited, selfish, arrogant or smugly superior. This is because equality is another one of our top common values. Any words or mannerism that convey even the slightest hint of superiority will set up a defensive, unlikable tone that blocks conversation. Regardless of the importance and urgency of what you have to say, you won’t get heard if you imply your superiority, even in the most subtle, inadvertent ways.

You might have to work diligently to communicate equality and avoid letting the subtle hints of superiority leak out in a conversation, especially when you are smart, good-looking and successful. Of course the best approach is to develop a truly humble nature, realizing that everyone has an important piece of the truth and that we all have to fit these pieces together to really know anything. I suspect that nobody's piece is any more valuable than the rest, even when it appears to be a little larger.


People also do not respond very well to being over-controlled. Again this is because freedom is another one of our most cherished values. Heck, our country was founded on freedom-fighters willing to risk their lives over this value! When you say or do anything that implies you are trying to control another person, they will probably close their ears to you. Or worse yet, they might engage you in a shouting match. I can't imagine either being very productive.

Probably the best way to avoid the appearance of being controlling is to stop talking so much in trying to dominate a conversation and listen actively to understand the other person better. Active listening conveys many of these other things, such as empathy, acceptance, equality and politeness, which will work together to improve a strongly likable tone of communication that is highly likely to get positive results.


If it is one thing we can all benefit from doing less of it is ceasing the unproductive habit of expressing critical judgments of others. When people perceive you to be judging or accusing them, they tend to become defensive and start focusing more on their own or your inadequacies than what is being said. And often, a sense of being judged erects a mental barrier to any further communication.

The trouble is that acceptance of unacceptable behavior by another is a catch-22 situation. The answer is to be as tolerant and accepting as you can, but when something offends your soul, speak up in an assertive manner. Assertiveness in this respect is simply letting someone else know that his or her words are offending you, and saying it in a polite, matter-of-fact, non-judgmental or accusatory way.

Empathy is the important skill of understanding exactly how another person thinks, feels, and experiences life. It takes much effort to develop this skill, but it all starts with good listening to understand the other person's perspective. Empathy is probably perceived most in emotional situations. At least it is then when most people decide whether you have it or not, based on your degree of sensitivity in deep and delicate situations.

Being too neutral, by saying "Oh you don't need to feel that way," or "It surely won't last forever," conveys a lack of empathy that will generate defensive feelings in the other person. In a sense you may be inadvertently miscommunicating dishonesty, superiority or any of the other behaviors that discourage good communication. What the person hears is that their feelings are not important or valid. How would that make you feel?


You don't have to be a stand-up comedian, but try seeing the events of life or the particular circumstances you are in from a slightly off-centered view. Good humor goes a long way to establish a more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere when you are talking to someone or writing something other people will read. Sometimes you can make important points better by poking fun at a problem or even laughing at some of the dumber mistakes you have made yourself.

Besides the few serious tragedies that happen in life, most other things can offer a glimmer of laughter if you look long enough. Being over-serious can create a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere during conversation. If you are not naturally funny, learn to at least laugh and smile frequently in your conversation. Don’t allow yourself to be held back by the dominant over-serious side of your personality—give your funny bone some airtime! As a friend once told me, “Don’t take life too seriously; after all you’re not getting out of it alive!”


There is something about over-certainty that turns most people off. Again, words and communication styles that convey over-certainty about something may be bringing all the other defensive mistakes together for one big defensive tone that will shut the door to further communication. Is anything absolutely certain? Doesn't certainty imply superiority and arrogance? And maybe someone else’s profession of certainty warns us of possible dishonesty or at least disingenuousness.

These ideas regarding likable and unlikable communication might be received better if I offer them as tentative solutions rather than saying, "When you violate these ten behaviors you will surely create a permanent defensive tone to all your communication and fail in what you are trying to do." Personally, I begin to feel more comfortable with something being true when I sense it to be 5% shy of absolute certainty. Having that slight doubt helps me to keep looking for contradictory information. It also helps me to not impose it on others unless it is asked for.


Psychologically healthy people clearly prefer to be around people who are mostly positive, trying to avoid negative, complaining, angry people. Negative emotionality is draining and unproductive, but unfortunately it is highly contagious. It is also unfortunate that there are too many people leaning towards being negative, for all the others to avoid. So, unlikable, negative confrontations are inevitable. This is when using likable communication counts most—not giving into your normal tendency to fight fire with fire, or worse yet with gasolene.

One of the most powerful responses to negativity is silence. Actually, the more you ignore something, the more likely it will go away. It is often the attention which encourages the continuation of undesirable behaviors such as whining, complaining, criticizing and contemptuous, angry outbursts.

If ignoring such unlikability is not within you, then there is really only one workable solution and that is to demonstrate your own positive, productive attitude for the negative person to see and learn from. When someone is complaining about how unfair things are, treat them with obvious fairness. When someone is expressing anger towards you, express kindness in trying to find out what you might do to help the person feel happier. When they are anxious provide some reasonable certainty.


I have been encouraged that my own research is indicating the relative importance of common courtesy and politeness. However, I am becoming dismayed at other national research that is finding a decline in the practice of these things, especially by the youth. Recently, I have sent out hundreds of complimentary books. To date, I have only received a handful of kind, thoughtful "thank you" notes. I know the books were unsolicited and that important people have time limitations, but how long does it take to scribble out a simple note of acknowledgment? Aren't I more likely to see those few folks that did respond, as likable, and return the favor someday? What goes around comes around.

Polite, kind, thoughtful and courteous words go a long way toward influencing a strong perception of you as being likable, that will open many other doors. It really doesn't take much time or effort to communicate politely and the payoffs are 1000% return on investment. It doesn't make sense to not take advantage of this aspect of likable communication. All you are doing is practicing the best rule of all time—the Golden Rule, by saying a few right words in the right way.

By consciously conveying these ten positive, likable behaviors and avoiding all traces of their unlikable opposites, you are more likely to produce a supportive tone that will keep communication open and benefit everyone. The link between likable communication, good interpersonal relations and success makes a compelling case to apply this information across the board. Actually, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.


Take this simple test to determine the level of likability in your communication. Circle the number that represents the frequency in which the following things are true for you, according to this key:

1 = Hardly Ever 3 = Occasionally 5 = Sometimes 7 = Often 10 = Almost Always

1. I listen more than I talk, even when I have a lot to say. 1 3 5 7 10
2. I take great interest in what someone else is saying no matter what I think of the person. 1 3 5 7 10
3. I counter negativity with a positive response. 1 3 5 7 10
4. Other people comment about my smile. 1 3 5 7 10
5. I have been told I have a good sense of humor. 1 3 5 7 10
6. I go out of my way to be honest in communicating with others. 1 3 5 7 10
7. I am sensitive to not appearing arrogant or self-centered. 1 3 5 7 10
8. I am extremely conscious about being polite and courteous. 1 3 5 7 10
9. I am comfortable seeing things as tentative. 1 3 5 7 10
10. I am very patient when having conversations with others. 1 3 5 7 10
11. I avoid being negative in what I say and how I respond. 1 3 5 7 10
12. I have been told I am a caring person with a big heart. 1 3 5 7 10
13. I avoid judging others. 1 3 5 7 10
14. Others see me as being very accepting and tolerant. 1 3 5 7 10
15. I communicate the same way with everyone. 1 3 5 7 10

Scoring Key:

Below 69 Need to learn how to become more likable in your communication.
70-89 Good skills but can improve significantly.
90-150 Excellent skills in likable communication, start teaching others.


Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA and also a business and personal success coach, sport psychologist, photographer and writer living in the mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, The Prosperity Zone, Getting More By Doing Less, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too, The Bow-Wow Secrets, Do What Matters Most, “P” Point Management, and Reality Repair Rx coming shortly. He can be contacted with comments or questions at 425 454-5011 or