Monday, May 10, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Why Be More Likeable?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post entitled, "The Likeability Factor." Link here. Soon thereafter my friend Ari Mendelson wrote to inform me of the existence of a very fine book entitled, The Likeability Factor, by Tim Sanders.

Naturally, I went straight to Amazon to order a copy.

Now that I have started reading it I have not been disappointed. The book illuminates a critically important area of human experience, one that has generally escaped the therapy culture.

Likeability has not, however, escaped the research interest of clinical psychologists, and it has certainly not escaped the notice of marketers, advertisers, political consultants, and human resources professionals. Sanders' book is filled with references to scholarly work on the topic of likeability.

All agree that if there is one thing that you can do to improve your life, your career, your relationships, and your health... it would be to work on becoming more likeable. To his credit, Sanders emphasizes that likeability is something you can and should work on. And this means that no insight into your past history is going to make you automatically more likeable. It also means that living out your most unlikeable tendencies is not going to get you any closer to being likeable.

I cannot pretend that the importance of likeability has been ignored. And yet, Sanders' book would generally be classified in the category of self-help or self-improvement, therefore, you might guess, something that the cognoscenti are likely to disparage as beneath their mental dignity.

Most intellectuals-- and here I speak from experience-- believe that the most important books are books that they cannot understand.

Occam's razor and cognitive fluency aside, intellectuals have a perverse tendency to imagine that the more complicated and convoluted the thought, the more worthy it is of their fealty. Of course, this is a species of elitism; intellectuals like to speak a language that others cannot understand. It makes them feel superior, and it makes them feel like they belong to an elite group, even if they have no idea what they are talking about.

Once they have established this point, it is not too difficult for them to take the next step: that they, an educated elite, should be deciding things for the lesser mortals who cannot understand their theories.

It is, after all, an invitation to class warfare, though not the way the term is most often used.

The world of psychoanalysis, which I used to be part of, is infested with elitist pretension. The world of Lacanian psychoanalysis is filled with people who bandy about terms and concepts that they cannot grasp, all for the thrill of feeling like a part of something that has intellectual heft. Lacan himself often remarked that, what with all his acolytes and the crowds that used to turn out for his lectures, less than a handful of people really understood what he was talking about.

For these reasons, whenever I broach a subject like likeability or friendship, I feel compelled to counter the knee-jerk rejectionism by dropping the name of someone like Aristotle into the mix.

Not gratuitously. All of our thinking about friendship and likeability is a footnote on Aristotle's ethics. The fact that such a serious topic should be relegated to the category of self-help or self-improvement shows how the therapy culture has marginalized and diminished competing points of view.

Likeability involves being friendly, cordial, congenial, and convivial. All the time, with just about everyone. It wants you to begin by learning to like other people, to welcome their company, to care about whatever they want to discuss with you. It means offering good news, not bad news; offering compliments, not complaints and criticism; being agreeable, not contentious. It requires you to discover and to bring out the best in others, not the worst. And it tells you to negotiate your differences, to find a middle ground, not to sharpen them and produce conflict.

By the way, it is very difficult to succeed at. As Sanders says, even if you are born with a congeniality gene, you still have to work at liking the vast majority of the people you interact with on a daily basis.

Because, as Sanders also says, you become more likeable by learning to like other people and by practicing the social skills that denote it.

Likeability would seem to make for a rather boring life. It will reduce your quantity of storm and stress. Which is bad for the therapy culture and its love of drama and mental conflict. And, the therapy culture would immediately pronounce a likeable individual to be a fraud, a fake, or unreal. It would see a life filled with social harmonious to be inauthentic and oppressive.

Isn't therapy based on finding out what's wrong, and why it went wrong? Doesn't it involve a goodly dose of undisciplined complaining and criticizing? Aren't its truths the most sordid motivations and the most criminal impulses.

I am sure that if you asked a random sampling of therapists they would tell you that likeability is a great virtue. But how many of them spend their professional consultations coaching people on how to be more likeable? And how many of them spend their time listening to unfocused complaints and searching for the worst in people?

In a coaching session you assume that, given the right guidance, the client has the capacity to deal with complex issues. In a therapy session you assume that the client is emotionally defective and cannot deal with anything before he plumbs the depths of his past miseries.

And, as we all know, coaching is supposedly less sophisticated than therapy. It has less theoretical weight and is often shunted off into the world of consultants.

But, there is something else that is strange here. The deep thinkers of this world believe that reducing all human motivation to a story about a man who murdered his father and married his mother is the height of intellectual sophistication. And those who do not still worship Oedipus have simply replaced him with another mythic character, Narcissus.

But isn't this closer to primitive thinking than to serious reflection. There is no room in the story of Oedipus for civility, for conciliatory gestures, or for feeling good about seeing people. In this purest of dramas there is nothing about likeability.

Whether it is the myth of Oedipus or the myth of Narcissus psychotherapy has its roots in primitive storytelling, in a reactionary tendency to convince us that we are all primitives under the skin, that our lives are nothing but enacted dramas, and that civilized morality is just a cover up for inconvenient mythic truths.

Making your life into a myth will distance you from likeability and good cheer. Living a myth is antithetical to the job of being more likeable. And yet, creating a dialectical conflict between myth and civility is not going to resolve itself in a higher synthesis. The path to likeability requires that you overcome and discard the impulse to emulate savages and barbarians, not that you struggle with it.

How do you do it? If you follow the cognitive model you would think about three people you seriously dislike and then write down three things about each of them that you find likeable. Then, when you run into them you will be ready to offer an open hand of friendship, not a closed fist of defiance or a closed gesture of defensiveness.

When people suffer the influence of dialectical thinking they assume that they must sharpen their differences with other people by saying what they want to say, regardless of how impolite or contentious it is, thus making their lives into something like a class struggle.

If you have given your life over to a political or ideological struggle, to the extent that you actively despise people who hold opposing opinions, you have simply made yourself unlikeable. You might have a merry band of comrades and co-conspirators, but you will not have the rich variety of friends that will make you more successful, in your relationships and in your career.


Tim Sanders said...

Wow, this is a very thorough, thoughtful and helpful article on Likeability.

As author of the book, I'm knocked out by your level of precision and detail covering this subject. Thanks for expanding on this and sharing it with your readers.

Best of like!

Tim Sanders - author, The Likeability Factor

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks so much, Tim. I'm liking the book and will be writing more about the topic as I get further into it.