How to make someone feel extraordinary by saying very little

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I walked into his office, a defeated salesman on the verge of quitting. Two hours later, I joined his mentorship program and signed a loan commitment for $12,500.

Nobody had ever made me feel like I was a man of such importance and stature. I strutted out the door, feeling like I owned the world.

But it didn’t start out that way.

I had stepped into his office hesitantly, intimidated by his display of success. The walls displayed photographs of his skiing exploits from all over the world. His desk featured the requisite “Man with Mercedes” photo. All of the trinkets on his shelves looked like museum pieces.

This guy had seemingly achieved it all; I was barely able to pay my bills. I hadn’t earned the right to occupy his airspace, I thought to myself. What the hell was I doing there?

It took him one minute to relieve my unease.

He invited me to sit.

“Just one sec,” he said.

Then he turned off his cellphone and placed it in his desk drawer. He called his assistant and asked her not to interrupt him unless there was a family emergency.

He took out a fresh notepad and pen and sat across from me. After exchanging brief introductions, he opened with, “Tell me about your struggles.”

He scribbled notes furiously as I spoke. When I stopped, he prompted, “That’s interesting. Can you tell me more?”

He’d throw in other questions (what he’d call “reversals”), not to frame the conversation but to keep me talking. The one or two times he wanted to change the direction of the discussion, he’d first ask permission.

By the time we had finished, he had filled up four pages of handwritten notes. He summarized his conclusions on a giant whiteboard labeled “Barry’s Action Plan to Hit $250K.” I told him my goal was $100K, but he responded, “After hearing your story, you’re capable of so much more.”
Fourteen years later, I consider his mentorship program the smartest investment of my life. It was an insane amount of money for me, and I’m still amazed at how he sold me: He had barely said a word, but I had never felt so important, so revered, by someone outside my family.

A few weeks after my mentorship began, he broke down his three-step approach to relationship building:

Demonstrate your interest in the person

The most important lesson he taught me was that demonstrations persuade more than words.

When I walked into his office for that first meeting, he never said: “I’m going to give you my undivided attention.”

Instead, he communicated with his actions. He wanted me to see him turn off his phone and place it in a drawer. His assistant already knew not to interrupt him, but the demonstration mattered. Even the selection of a clean notepad was by design.

I saw all this and concluded: “He’s treating me like I’m a dignitary.”
But your actions alone only make up half the demonstration equation. You also show interest through your body language. Slumped shoulders and lethargic movement signal disinterest. Sharp movements, good posture, and smiles show a sincere desire to hear what someone has to say.

Imagine meeting a friend for coffee. She greets you with a frown. She checks her phone every time you speak and breaks eye contact to stare at the table next to you. But she tells you she’s super interested in what you’re saying. Hard to believe, right?

If you want someone to know you’re interested in them, don’t tell them. Let them make the conclusion themselves from the actions you take and the body language you exhibit.

Use “reversals” to keep them talking about themselves

The Dale Carnegie disciples recommend asking questions. My mentor had his own take on the power of questions. He preferred reversals: brief statements and questions that keep the focus on the other person. Think of it as a game of tennis in which one player does just enough to keep the rally going. A reversal moves the conversation along without forcing it into directions your counterpart might resist. It gives them a feeling of control, which makes them more comfortable and more likely to open up to you.
Some examples of reversals:

  • “How so? I didn’t see that coming.”
  • “Really? Tell me more—if you’re comfortable.”
  • “Curious, how did that make you feel?”
  • “That’s interesting, and then what?”
  • “Why is that? If you don’t mind me asking.”
  • “And? Don’t stop now. I need to hear the rest.”
  • “That makes sense. What else?”

Notice how there’s a transition statement before or after each question. When you shoot back with just a question, it can come across as harsh or abrupt. The transition statement buffers the question and makes the conversation feel natural.

If you need to move the conversation in a new direction, always ask permission and give the other person the freedom to decline.

Show someone they’re capable of more than they believe.

I once had a friend who tried to raise the spirits of everyone she met. She’d profess her confidence in their abilities and praise them for their excellence. She was so kind, but the problem was that she often had no basis for making these assertions. The praise seemed disingenuous.

My mentor had made his praise feel sincere because he did his homework.

He learned about me, pointed out my strengths, and explained how he would help me hone them. Only then did he tell me I was capable of more than I believed. “You should quadruple your income goal, perhaps more.” The argument was right there on the whiteboard. I had no choice but to believe it.

To make someone believe they’re capable of achieving more than they believe, you must do the hard work of discovery first. Without learning the truth, your praise is just bullshit.

These strategies might seem simple and obvious — you might even already use them on occasion. However, it takes practice and consistency to deploy them in a way that makes someone feel extraordinary.

  • Your actions, not words, demonstrate a desire to learn about someone.
  • Whenever possible, use reversals to gather information and keep the conversation focused on them.
  • Use that knowledge to point out the greatness they never knew they possessed.
  • That’s it. It’s not difficult to make someone feel like they can take on the world.

This article originally appeared in Medium.