I braced myself for a weeklong visit to my friend Felicia's house the way I would for a wilderness survival expedition. Felicia had just started her own company, so I didn't expect that she would have the time or energy to pamper me. And besides, I assumed that putting aside my own comfort was the small but inevitable price I needed to pay for the privilege of a sleepover at a loved one's home.

Felicia proved otherwise.

When I placed my bags in her spare bedroom, I was pleasantly stunned to find that every detail of the room had been set up for me—not just any guest, but me specifically. There was a small stack of fascinating articles that Felicia suspected I would love, and clusters of lilacs filled the room with my favorite scent.

Felicia, it turns out, is a gifted practitioner of something I call empathetic hosting. Her way of personalizing a space for visitors made me feel so pampered that I started imitating her thoughtfulness when guests stayed at my place. Here are some empathetic-hosting guidelines you might want to try at your home.

Focus on Giving Attention, Not Getting Attention

When most of us clean, decorate or otherwise prepare for visitors, we're driven by a desire for approval. "What will they think if there are dust bunnies under the bed?" we worry. "Will they be disdainful of my coffee choices, shocked by the children's bedrooms, aware that mud walls are considered fashionable in some regions of the country?" By the time a visitor arrives, the space usually screams, "So enough about me, let's talk about you...what do you think of me?"

Felicia, on the other hand, never worries about her guests' judgments of her. She's too busy empathizing with whatever they're experiencing in their lives. When the visitor is her great aunt Ann, who often complains that her life lacks fun and vibrancy, Felicia doesn't obsess about fashionable décor—she just provides lots of New Yorker cartoons, comedy DVDs, and chances for Ann to hang out with Felicia's two kids and three dogs. When her kindergarten-teacher sister Sophie arrives, Felicia wisely guesses that Sophie isn't craving more time with children—she wants a calm space, intelligent conversation, and a stiff drink (not necessarily in that order), and Felicia makes sure she gets them.

Before your guests arrive, spend some time picturing their lives—not yourself, your house, or your reputation, but their lives—from their point of view. When you walk in their shoes, what creature comforts sound tempting? What diversions are most diverting? What would you like to avoid for a while? Just a small touch, like putting a homemade "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door and respecting it while a tired guest sleeps can make the humblest guest quarters feel like the Ritz.

Give Them What They Love, Not What You Love

"Dolores goes to Vegas so often, I bet she's ready for a Zen hideaway experience." No, she isn't. "Ben spends all his time with machines. He should change things up, go to the opera." No, he shouldn't. Here's my never-fail rule for providing special touches that will make your guests happy: Find out what they do or buy on their own, and give them more of it.

Our personality traits tend to stay consistent throughout life, and what we do with our free time and money is a good indication of that consistency. The guest who has bought herself thousands of bottles of nail polish will love one more. Felicia left me humorous writings because she had noticed a ton like them in my house. The fact that she was so clearly thinking of me when she made that decision made me feel deliciously spoiled, genuinely seen.

So put a lottery ticket on the pillow for Vegas-loving Dolores. Tape the Pimp My Ride marathon for mechanically inclined Ben. Giving guests what you love is projection. Giving them what they'd choose for themselves is empathy.

How to think about your guest's needs


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