Do you want to have better relationships? Well, you should definitely take some advice from… the Stoics.
I know, it sounds weird. Most people think of the Stoics as being emotionless — not exactly good examples for how to handle relationships.
But that’s a myth. The ancient Stoics were big on virtue, self-control and reducing negative emotions. And those are pretty good things if you’re trying to be more likable.
And their methods are backed by science. Stoicism was one of the inspirations for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is currently the dominant method for helping people overcome psychological issues.
To get some answers I spoke to Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, and author of the new book, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.
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So what can we learn about being likable from the ancient Stoics? Let’s get to it…
Plain and simple: stop talking about yourself so much. Focus on the other person.
Here’s Stoic grandmaster Epictetus:
In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures.
Yeah, talking about yourself feels good. In fact, research shows your brain finds it more rewarding than food or money.
Neuroscientist Diana Tamir found that your brain gets more pleasure from you talking about yourself than it does from food or money.
But you want other people to enjoy your company, right? So shut up and let them feel good by talking about themselves.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
Okay, so you’re talking about yourself less. But how do the Stoics think you should handle difficult interactions — like when someone insults you?
Practice “Insult Pacifism”
When somebody says you’re dumb as a post, how do the Stoics think you should respond?
“You give me too much credit. I’m a lot stupider than a post.”
Here’s Stoic hall-of-famer Epictetus again:
If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer: “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
Yeah, the other person was mean. But what’s the benefit of escalating things into an out-and-out fight? When people insult you, respond with self-deprecating humor.
Also, there are longer term personal benefits to this. Not reacting harshly improves your self-control.
And by ignoring the tone and just listening to the content of the insult, you might occasionally get some useful feedback on how to improve yourself.
The more you train yourself to endure insults the stronger you feel psychologically… it is worth ignoring the cutting aspect of what she is saying in order to focus on what it is that she may have gotten right and that may have eluded you. There is no reason at all why insults, even when meant as such, cannot also be teaching moments for us.
(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
So if someone insults you, you’re just going to use self-deprecating humor. But what if you’re the one saying something awful?
How do you make sure you don’t say something you’ll regret?
Listen To The Angel On Your Shoulder
Want to make sure you behave properly? Pretend someone you respect is standing behind you. Maybe it’s your grandma or a mentor of yours.
Would you want to act like a jerk in front of them? No. Here’s Massimo:
Seneca felt you should go about your life thinking that there is someone looking over your shoulder. Basically, act like you always have to explain your actions to this alter ego.
Would you act like that in front of grandma? Then don’t act like that at all.
(To learn the 4 secrets to productivity from the Stoics, click here.)
So how do you click with new people you meet? Warning: this next one may feel a little weird. But it’s also a little heartwarming…
Treat Everyone As Family
Most of us see family as closer than friends and friends as closer than strangers. Understandable.
But what if you tried to pull all three of those levels a little closer together… and a little closer to you? Here’s Massimo:
Hierocles invited us to imagine a series of concentric circles with ourselves in the middle, then the next circle is our family, and then the next circle is our friends, then out of that there is our fellow citizens, and out of that our fellow countrymen, and finally all of humanity. Then he said to mentally try to bring all of the external circles closer to you. Meaning that you try to remind yourself that these are all human beings, that these are all people that you should actually care about just in the same way that you care about your family and your friends.
Sounds nice in theory, right? But how do you actually put this into practice?
You know how some guys say hello to their male friends with the words, “Hey, brother”?
Well, the Stoics approve. And they think you should give it a try. Here’s Massimo:
Hierocles said you should go around addressing people of your same age as brothers and sisters, and people older than you as aunts and uncles. It’s a sort of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to things. It’s like you do that, you keep repeating this thing, and then gradually you actually feel like other people are your brothers and sisters, your uncles and aunts.
Yeah, it might feel a little weird to call people brothers and sisters. But if you do it with a wry smile — cool like Fonzie — it can be a warm and fun way to draw yourself closer to others…
And them closer to you.
(To learn the 4 rituals from Stoicism that will make you mentally strong, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up…
Here are the 4 rituals from Stoicism that will make you loved:
- Not me: Stop talking about yourself. Let me talk about me and I’ll enjoy your company more. (Wow, this is more fun already.)
- Practice “insult pacifism”: This is the worst blog post I’ve ever written? Trust me, I’ve written farworse.
- Listen to the angel on your shoulder: Grandma is watching, potty-mouth.
- Treat everyone as family: Treat people as your brothers and sisters and they’ll likely reciprocate.
Now is this going to turn you into Dale Carnegie overnight? No. But that wouldn’t be a very Stoic expectation.
They were big on practicing exercises to improve over time. Massimo paraphrased Seneca:
“Don’t ask me to be perfect; just ask me to be better than yesterday.”
If you talk less about yourself, laugh off insults, and act like grandma is watching, you’ll find that people will enjoy your company much more.
Trust me, brother… or sister.
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