Flowers and a note on a bed
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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

Customize, Don't Generalize

The word special is so overused that I generally avoid it, but it's apropos for describing the feeling you create when you customize a space, gift, or activity for a particular visitor. Special means "one of a kind," and that's how your guests will feel when they stay at your home.

Years ago, when I was speaking at a charity event, the organizers called me prior to the conference and asked my shoe size. When I got to the venue, they gave me a pair of electric green running shoes, which had probably cost about $5 on the manufacturer's "remainders" table. But this pleased me beyond all earthly reason. I mean, shoes! In my size! Ever since, I've loved buying simple clothing and accessories like beach sandals—in the right size—and setting them on the guest bed for my visitors to discover.

Do visitors really like this, or do they fake delight in order to be courteous? The truth is that the process of choosing, buying, and arranging gifts makes me so happy I don't honestly care. Which brings me to my last empathetic-hosting rule.

Be Generous for Your Sake, Not Theirs

Empathy is all about doing things for another's sake, right? No. Empathetic hosting plays to the guest's needs and wants, but—as paradoxical as this may sound—you do it to please yourself, too. This doesn't mean that you should give your lifeblood to care for your guest and force yourself, by God, to like it. On the contrary: It means that the moment you feel yourself becoming resentful or overburdened, you should stop catering to the guest and begin caring for yourself. Draw the boundaries of your generosity at the limit where your own joy begins to wane. Don't judge yourself for not giving impressively or perfectly.

The Buddha taught that anyone who experiences the delight of being truly generous will never want to eat another meal without sharing it. Opening our homes to the people we care about means sharing the great feast of life: our space, our time, our minds, our hearts. In the end, this approach, ironically, turns out to feel completely selfish. Although empathetic hosting will make your guests feel wonderful, you'll find that no matter how much they enjoy visiting, the person who derives the most sheer joy from this process will be you.

If You're the Guest...

There are a few things you can do to make your stay comfortable:
  • Rather than sticking only to your host's schedule, come and go as you please during long visits. Otherwise, you might harbor resentment.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Your host can't read minds—if you're cold, grab a blanket. Assume a gracious host would want you to do so.
  • Prepare a script that states your needs. Rehearse questions you might need to ask, such as, "Would you mind if I go to bed early?"

The Rules of Hosting the Perfect Party


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