5 Traits That Set Exceptional People Apart

Joe Navarro is a retired FBI Agent with a unique perspective on how to be exceptional. He is an expert in body language, nonverbal communication, and interviewing techniques. In his book, Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits that Set Extraordinary People Apart (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2021), he describes the five domains of the exceptional person. This book provides great insights on communication from a unique perspective.


1 - Self-Mastery: The Heart of the Exceptional

First, “Self-mastery garners the trust, cooperation, and admiration of others—it is the most powerful tool a businessperson can count on repeatedly with the greatest return on investment” [69]. An interesting observation: “Without exception, in every case I studied, exceptional individuals made it a lifelong habit to carve out the time to work on themselves” [14].

Part of self-mastery is control over emotions. He cautions that “emotions must be kept in balance at all times. Either you control emotions or emotions will rule over you” [22]. Self-mastery includes noticing the small: “…failure to do the small things in an orderly, timely manner keeps many from being able to accomplish the bigger things in life” [48].


2 - Observation: Seeing what Matters

Second, there is the issue of observation. This is a safeguard against getting blindsided when situations suddenly become complex [75]. He points out that better observers are usually more successful because their powers of observation allow them to see things others miss—and that is what differentiates them [77].

Situational awareness has three components: Awareness of our environment; Awareness of how individuals are behaving; and Awareness of our knowledge base [84]. In business, the art of observation offers a competitive advantage—to see what others don’t [86].

The exceptional person should strive for “enlightened awareness” which is to resist the pattern of quick assessments and let things sink in first and ask neutral questions [90-91]. People will open up if you accord them “benign curiosity” [99].

Being able to scan the people in a room is important: “We avoid intrusive observation by not looking at people directly, but rather by scanning: we glance by them by keeping our eye moving rather than focusing for too long” [116]. 


3 - Communication: From Informative to Transformative

Communication is a challenge. Navarro quotes George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” [125].

How do we have transformative communication? “Study after study has shown that in business, people want to be valued, they want to be respected, that more often than not, what motivates individuals is not the money, but recognition and validation” [133].

An absolute key point: “Most people in business, I have found, will display that something is bothering them long before they are forthcoming and say something” [150].


4 - Action: Make it Timely, Ethical and Prosocial

Taking action is important: “We become trustworthy when we demonstrate consistently and unequivocally that we care about others, fulfill our obligations, and reliably act in furtherance of others” [184]. Further, “prosocial action is a step beyond caring. It is action to ameliorate” [190].


5 - Psychological Comfort: The Most Powerful Strength Humans Possess

When things are really bad, we don’t seek answers so much as psychological comfort [202]. Navarro defines psychological comfort as follows: “A state of being where our biological, physical, and emotional needs are met or exceeded, and there is an absence of anxiety, apprehension, or fear that satisfies our needs and preferences, provides tranquility, or that allows us to enjoy a moment or an experience fully” [205]. From a place of psychological comfort, we are most productive and effective [217].


Key Questions When Assessing a Meeting

  1. What do I know about them?
  2. What is the meeting protocol?
  3. What are their spatial needs? (personal, cultural, etc.)
  4. What else might be going on? (our bodies reflect our moods)
  5. What can I offer to foster comfort? (attentive hospitality) [221]


How to facilitate positive engagement

  1. Mirror their behaviours
  2. Mirror their words
  3. Adjust to their speech pace
  4. If you are using buzzwords or jargon, make sure that everyone understands the meaning
  5. Assess for the nonverbals of synchrony
  6. Don’t let repetitive behaviours distract you
  7. Know when to wrap things up

What does Navarro suggest it takes to be exceptional? Rigorous discipline, dedication, practice, and an appreciation for what it takes. To be exceptional one must do exceptional things!