Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, recently gave a talk at Stanford University. Admittedly, I was a little dubious about her whole "teaching charisma" thing... but her presentation had a great hook.
(I paraphrased this from her talk, but I think this story actually an excerpt from The Charisma Myth.)
People tend to think of charisma as a magical, innate je ne sais quoi. Something you're born with, or you're not. But research shows that charisma, like playfulness (or even language!), is not a trait, but a skill. Charisma is the result of specific thoughts and behaviors. Behaviors we're born able to learn... but that some people learn better, sooner or differently than others.
(To be honest, I vaguely object to Cabane's use of the term "charisma" -- both because of its connotations and because it's a little cheesy -- but I guess it's more concise than "a set of social skills, cognitive skills and behaviors," so let's just roll with it.)
In other words, some people unconsciously "learn charisma" on their own. But others (including Steve Jobs) might have to consciously decide to study it on their own.
Cabane writes about three types of behaviors that create charisma:
1. Behaviors of presence
2. Behaviors of power
3. Behaviors or warmth
All three are critical -- but different people use them differently, depending on their context and personality.
Behaviors of presence are related to mindfulness, and are the core of charisma. By being mindful and present while you're with someone, you make them feel special, respected and important. Which a) makes them like being around you, and b) makes them want to reciprocate.
If there's one thing the human mind does well, it's interpreting human emotion. I was at the Exploratorium with a friend a few weeks back, and we saw an exhibit on this. We sat facing each other, each each with a list of ten phrases (e.g., "I really like you," "I'm cold," and, "Can we go now?") Then we took turns holding up a mask that covered our face -- except the eyes -- and thinking about one of the phrases. The unmasked partner had to guess which.
Using nothing but my eyes as a reference, my partner got nine out of ten correct.
Now imagine what emotions he could have noticed if he'd been able to see the rest of my face and read my body language!
When you're with someone, but you're distracted by other thoughts or emotions, people notice. Maybe your eyes glaze over, or your reactions are a little off or delayed. (It only takes 17 milliseconds to register someone's emotions.) Or maybe you're being super obvious about it and using a mobile device while "listening" to them.
This makes people feel... bad. Like they're not important. Or like you're not being authentic. And they're right -- you're not. You're thinking about something else -- whether it's an upcoming deadline, a personal insecurity, or a new crush. They do not have your undivided attention.
So the first step to being "charismatic" -- and also happy, healthy, etc. -- is being present.
As I wrote a while back in How iPads Kill Happiness and Creativity,
There's power in mindfulness. It was the earliest form of psychology -- and, in a way, psychiatry and neuroscience. Mindfulness makes us feel younger. It makes our day seem longer. It brings us mental clarity. And it helps us recognize opportunities and resources for fun. Fliers for a show you might want to see. A little sculpture you've never noticed before. A - wait, what? - a swing! Over in that tree!
Cabane describes two ways to bring yourself back to the present.
1. Focus on the physical sensations in your body. Your face. Your toes. How and what do you feel right now? Do this for a split second, and it will reset your mind.
2. Focus on the colors in the eyes of your conversation partner. It's cool to notice the flecks and arrays in their irises. It brings you to the present. And it makes people feel like you're having some kind of deep, cool moment. Don't be creepy and overdo it, though. A little goes a long way.
"Remember," Cabaret said, "Giving people your full presence makes them feel like they're center of your universe. Charisma isn't about how you make people feel about you. It's how you make them feel about themselves."
Power comes in many forms: money, social status, physical strength, knowledge, etc. But behaviors of power aren't related to actual power -- they're about body language and confidence.
As I wrote inWhat Women Can Learn from Scottie Pippen, the greatest Chicago Bulls Player of All Time:
Confidence -- as well as doubt -- affects how we carry ourselves, which affects both how others see us... and, in a frustrating and self-perpetuating cycle, governs some hormonal and physiological processes in our bodies. When you assume a powerful "victory stance," your testosterone (the dominance hormone) levels rise, and your cortisol (stress hormone ) levels drop.
To learn more about body language and how it shapes who you are, I recommend watching Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy's TED Talk:
Insecure people take up less space. Leaders take an expansive pose, which studies have shown to decrease stress and anxiety hormones by 19%, while increasing assertiveness and energy-boosting ones by 25%. Which makes you stand prouder and taller. Which releases (or inhibits) hormones in your brain. It's a cycle.
Use this to your advantage. Or, as Cabane put it, "Play chemistry with your brain for peak performance."
The key here is confidence. You have to be comfortable speaking with authority. You have to adopt that power stance. And you have to stay present and avoid negative thought patterns, like rumination and self-doubt. When you think negative thoughts -- whether they're about yourself, your conversation partner or something completely unrelated -- it shows on your face. It affects your body language. And people will definitely notice.
Behaviors of warmth refers to how much someone likes you -- and how much you seem to like them. This is important, because liking induces liking. We like people who are like us, and we like people who like us. It's Psych 101.
You can emit warmth with great eye contact and active listening (see Behaviors of Presence). But warmth is actually very difficult to fake. Remember: it only takes people 17 milliseconds to register your facial expressions. And it's pretty much impossible for you to control each and every expression you make.
This is why so many performers use method acting -- a group of techniques that create the thoughts and emotions of characters in the minds of actors. It helps actors convey how they truly feel, using emotional processing areas, rather than planning and prediction areas, of the brain.
Likewise, Cabane recommends changing how you feel -- not what you're expressing. Take advantage of the fact that our brains are horrible at distinguishing fantasy from reality (think about how scared you got last time you watched a scary movie, even though you knew it was just a movie). Think about something or someone you love for a few moments before an interaction with someone. Your positive emotions will show, and your conversation partner will respond in kind.
Then practice reframing a situation. One of the most basic errors in human psychology is the fundamental attribution error (a term coined by my amazing, brilliant Stanford advisor, Lee Ross): we tend to attribute our own behavior to our situation, and others' behavior to their disposition.
So say you're on a bus, and you accidentally step on someone's toe and he yells at you. You totally think he's a dick, right? A grumpy and mean person? Someone who lashes out at strangers?
Now reverse it. A guy steps on your toe and you yell at him. This isn't like me! you think. I had a terrible morning -- my dog was sick on the carpet and I had a fight with my spouse and the construction across the street woke me up before my alarm. Of course I overreacted!
Keep this in mind next time someone is rude to you. Maybe he had a horrible morning. Maybe he had a horrible childhood. Maybe his wife left him. You don't know. But if we've ever learned anything from psychology, it's that situation matters. The kindest people can do the most evil things under the right experimental conditions. So be empathetic.
And if you end up in a conversation with someone you really don't like... try to think of something good about them. She has nice hair. He showed up on time. He has a really nice bike. One nice thought can go a long way, if you let it.
Again, presence has a lot to do with warmth. People -- even children -- can detect authenticity. They know when they have your full attention. Plus (I can't say it enough), being present and mindful will improve your whole life -- as well as your physical and mental health. So if you're going to ignore everything in this whole post except for one thing, let it be presence.
Alternatively, if you want to learn more about the behaviors and traits that will make you more charismatic, you should check out Cabane's book -- she'll tell you a lot more than I can about this.
What do you think about the skills and behaviors listed here? Are there any you would add? Leave a comment!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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