The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane

The Charisma Myth

RATING: 7/10…READ: May 28, 2013

A solid guide to What Charisma is, how to cultivate it, and why it’s important. Not just a douchey book of manipulative tactics, but delves deep into the psyche of people and how to change the negative self-scripts you have going on. Backed by research.

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Extensive research in recent years has shown, charisma is the result of specific nonverbal behaviors,5 not an inherent or magical personal quality.

When you meet a charismatic person, you get the impression that they have a lot of power and they like you a lot. The equation that produces charisma is actually fairly simple. All you have to do is give the impression that you possess both high power and high warmth, since charismatic behaviors project a combination of these two qualities. “Fight or flight?” is the power question. “Friend or foe?” is the warmth question.

Being present means simply having a moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening. It means paying attention to what’s going on rather than being caught up in your own thoughts.

A 2,250-person study coauthored by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert estimated that nearly half of the average person’s time was spent “mind wandering.

The very next time you’re in a conversation, try to regularly check whether your mind is fully engaged or whether it is wandering elsewhere (including preparing your next sentence). Aim to bring yourself back to the present moment as often as you can by focusing on your breath or your toes for just a second, and then get back to focusing on the other person.

Being charismatic does not depend on how much time you have but on how fully present you are in each interaction.

Warmth, simply put, is goodwill toward others. Warmth tells us whether or not people will want to use whatever power they have in our favor. Being seen as warm means being perceived as any of the following: benevolent, altruistic, caring, or willing to impact our world in a positive way. Warmth is assessed almost entirely through body language and behavior; it’s evaluated more directly than power.

Expensive clothing leads us to assume wealth, friendly body language leads us to assume good intentions, a confident posture leads us to assume the person has something to be confident about. In essence, people will tend to accept whatever you project.

Our natural discomfort with uncertainty is yet another legacy of our survival instincts. We tend to be more comfortable with what is familiar, which obviously hasn’t killed us yet, than with what is unknown or uncertain, which could turn out to be dangerous.

It’s worth learning how to handle uncertainty, not just because it increases charisma but also because the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of success in business.

Negativity exists to spur you to action, to either resolve the problem or get out of the situation. Feelings like fear or anxiety are designed to get you to do something. They’re uncomfortable because they’re “designed” to be uncomfortable.

Skillfully handling any difficult experience is a three-step process: destigmatize discomfort, neutralize negativity, and rewrite reality.

One of the main reasons we’re so affected by our negative thoughts is that we think our mind has an accurate grasp on reality, and that its conclusions are generally valid. This, however, is a fallacy. Our mind’s view of reality can be, and often is, completely distorted.

When people are induced into a negative emotional state and then asked to suppress negative emotions, their internal negative experience often remains unchanged and they sustain elevated stress responses in their brain and cardiovascular system.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Take a deep breath and shake out your body to ensure that no physical discomfort is adding to your tense mental state. Dedramatize. Remind yourself that these are just physical sensations. Right now, nothing serious is actually happening. This only feels uncomfortable because of the way your brain is wired. Zoom out your focus to see yourself as one little person sitting in a room with certain chemicals flooding his system. Nothing more.

Destigmatize. Remind yourself that what you’re experiencing is normal and everyone goes through it from time to time. Imagine countless people all over the world feeling the exact same thing. Neutralize. Remind yourself that thoughts are not necessarily real. There have been many times when you’ve been certain that a client was disappointed, only to discover that the exact opposite was true. Consider a few alternate realities. Michael considered:

Visualize a transfer of responsibility. Feel the weight of responsibility for the outcome of this situation lifting off your shoulders. Tell yourself it’s all taken care of.

So what’s this secret weapon? Being comfortable with discomfort.

Focusing on the minute sensations of your physical discomfort serves a dual purpose: it gives your mind something concrete to focus on other than its growing conviction that this situation is unbearable. It also has the advantage of bringing you instantly into full presence, a key component of charisma. In fact, this technique, called delving into sensations, can help you access charismatic presence even during highly uncomfortable situations.

I’ve often heard professional negotiators tell me that they could accurately predict the outcome of negotiations fairly early on using one simple clue: whoever has less endurance for silence loses.

Anytime you’re feeling anxious: The surest way to feel better when you’re feeling anxious is to flood your system with oxytocin. Often called the neuropeptide of trust, oxytocin instantly reverses the arousal of the fight-or-flight response.

One of my favorite neuroscience resources, the Wise Brain Bulletin, suggested that a twenty-second hug is enough to send oxytocin coursing through your veins, and that you can achieve the same effect just by imagining the hug. So the next time you’re feeling anxious, you might want to imagine being wrapped up in a great big hug from someone you care about.

Nineteenth-century author Napoleon Hill would regularly visualize nine famous men as his personal counselors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, and Abraham Lincoln. He wrote: “Every night… I held an imaginary council meeting with this group whom I called my ‘Invisible Counselors.’… I now go to my imaginary counselors with every difficult problem that confronts me and my clients. The results are often astonishing.”

Goodwill is the simple state of wishing others well. You can think of it as a mental muscle that can be strengthened through practice.

One simple but effective way to start is to try to find three things you like about the person you want to feel goodwill toward. No matter whom it is you’re talking to, find three things to appreciate or approve of—even if these are as small as “their shoes are shined” or “they were on time.” When you start searching for positive elements, your mental state changes accordingly and then sweeps through your body language.

If you respond better to auditory guides, try a few different phrases. For instance, while looking at someone, think, I like you. And I like you just for you. Or try to remember this guideline: Just love as much as you can from wherever you are. Remind yourself of these maxims several times a day, and notice the shift this can make in your mind and body. Another saying people often find equally effective: Of all the options open to me right now, which one would bring the most love into this world?

Your willingness to focus on others’ well-being is all you need to positively change your body language.

If you really need compassion dynamite, look at them and ask: What if this were their last day alive? You can even imagine their funeral. You’re at their funeral, and you’re asked to say a few words about them. You can also imagine what you’d say to them after they’d already died.

First, let’s distinguish three key concepts: Self-confidence is our belief in our ability to do or to learn how to do something.

Self-esteem is how much we approve of or value ourselves. It’s often a comparison-based evaluation (whether measured against other people or against our own internal standards for approval).

Self-compassion is how much warmth we can have for ourselves, especially when we’re going through a difficult experience.

Recent behavioral science research indicates that it may be healthier to focus on self-compassion than on self-esteem. The former is based on self-acceptance, the latter on self-evaluation and social comparison. Self-esteem is more of a roller coaster, contingent on how we believe we compare to others. It also tends to correlate with narcissism.

Individuals who score high on self-compassion scales demonstrate greater emotional resilience to daily difficulties and fewer negative reactions to difficult situations, such as receiving unflattering feedback. Higher self-compassion predicts a greater sense of personal responsibility for the outcome of events: it helps predict levels of accountability. People who score high on self-compassion also have a lower tendency for denial. This makes sense: personal mistakes would generate less self-criticism, so people would be more willing to admit to them.

Solid behavioral science research shows that the higher one’s level of self-compassion, the lower one’s level of self-pity. You can think of the difference between the two this way: self-compassion is feeling that what happened to you is unfortunate, whereas self-pity is feeling that what happened to you is unfair. In this way, self-pity can lead to resentment or bitterness, and to feeling more isolated and alienated. In contrast, self-compassion often leads to increased feelings of connectedness.

Self-compassion is what helps us forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short; it’s what prevents internal criticism from taking over and playing across our face, ruining our charisma potential. In this way, self-compassion is critical to emanating warmth.

Kristin Neff, one of compassion’s foremost researchers, defines self-compassion as a three-step process: First, realizing that we’re experiencing difficulties. Second, responding with kindness and understanding toward ourselves when we are suffering or feel inadequate, rather than being harshly self-critical. Third, realizing that whatever we’re going through is commonly experienced by all human beings, and remembering that everyone goes through difficult times.

When things go wrong in our lives, it’s easy to feel that other people are having an easier time. Recognizing instead that everyone at some point has had or will have the very experience you’re having now can help you feel like part of the larger human experience rather than feeling isolated and alienated.

Harvard and Columbia psychology researchers found that subjects who assumed a strong, confident physical posture and then spoke with a strong voice and imposing hand gestures actually produced a biochemical reaction that made them feel and seem more confident and powerful. In contrast, those who adopted a hesitant, submissive demeanor experienced the exact opposite biochemical reaction.

For confidence, assertiveness, and to be able to emanate gravitas, imagine playing the role of a military general—take a wide stance, puff up your chest, broaden your shoulders, stand straight, and confidently put your arms behind your back. Feel the effect of this posture internally. ♦ For a boost in both energy and warmth, stand up, stretch your hands as high up as possible, inhale as much as you can—imagine your rib cage expanding, doubling in size—make the biggest smile you can and look upward, hold for a second, and then relax everything.

Putting It into Practice: Warming Up When warming up for an important event, follow this checklist to prepare your internal state and maximize your charisma. ♦ Go over your schedule for the hours leading up to the event. Think about how the activities and meetings you have planned will affect you. ♦ If you can, avoid any difficult encounters and aim for confidence- or warmth-boosting experiences instead. ♦ Create your own music playlist for the internal state you’d like to have. You could make one for energy and confidence, one that makes you feel warm and empathetic, and another that makes you feel calm and serene. This exercise is a lot of fun in itself, and you can add new songs as often as you’d like.

With visionary charisma, you’re selling people on the vision more than on yourself.

Kindness charisma is primarily based on warmth. It connects with people’s hearts, and makes them feel welcomed, cherished, embraced, and, most of all, completely accepted.

A researcher conducted fake surveys in shopping malls wearing either a designer-logo sweater or a no-logo sweater. When faced with the designer label, 52 percent of people agreed to take the survey, compared with only 13 percent who saw no logo. Expensive logos also affected people’s charitable impulses. Research assistants brought in nearly twice as many donations when their shirts bore a visible designer label than they did when they wore (otherwise identical) no-label shirts.

As far as appearance goes, choosing clothing that appears expensive or high-status is one of the easiest ways to look authoritative.

Once full contact is made, lock your thumb down and squeeze firmly, about as much as your partner does. Shake from the elbow (not the wrist), linger for a moment if you want to convey particular warmth, and step back.

Continue with an open-ended question, such as “What’s the story behind it?” The word story has a very strong emotional effect on most people—it sends them straight into storytelling mode, which instantly changes the rapport between the two of you.

If they start asking about you and you want to refocus the conversation on them, use the bounce back technique. Answer the question with a fact, add a personal note, and redirect the question to them, as follows: Other Person: “So where are you moving to?” You: “To Chelsea [fact]. We fell in love with the parks and the bakeries [personal note]. What do you think of the neighborhood [redirect]?”

Even when you’re speaking, the one word that should pop up most often in your conversation is not I but you. Instead of saying “I read a great article on that subject in the New York Times,” try “You might enjoy the recent New York Times article on the subject.”

Wait until your conversation partner has finished a sentence, and say something to the effect of, “You know, based on what you’ve just said, you really should check out this Web site. If you have a card, I’ll send you the link.” As soon as your counterpart gives you a business card, you have the perfect opportunity to say, “Great! I’ll e-mail you soon. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Alternatively, if the person has agreed to meet someone in the room, simply say, “Let me introduce you,” and bring them together. Because you’ve just generously given them something, your conversation partner can’t help but have positive feelings for you. You can also draw others into the conversation as they pass by—a group of three or four is always easier to take leave of.

The MIT Media Lab studies showed, what impacts people isn’t the words or content used. Rather, they remember how it felt to be speaking with you.

You might not remember the exact content of conversations you had a week ago, but you probably do remember how they felt. It’s not the words but the conversation’s emotional imprint that remains.

Great listening skills start with the right mindset: both the willingness and the mental ability to be present, pay attention, and focus on what the other person is saying.

One of the most common mistakes my clients make is equating listening with “letting people talk until it’s my turn.”

Good listeners know never, ever to interrupt—not even if the impulse to do so comes from excitement about something the other person just said. No matter how congratulatory and warm your input, it will always result in their feeling at least a twinge of resentment or frustration at not having been allowed to complete their sentence. One of my clients told me: “This one practice alone is worth its weight gold. To stop interrupting others could be the single most important skill I’ve learned from working with you.”

Great listeners know to let others interrupt them. When someone interrupts you, let them!

Knowing how and when to pause is also an art in business conversations, and something that most charismatic conversationalists do naturally.

The next time you’re given a compliment, the following steps will help you skillfully handle the moment: Stop. Absorb the compliment. Enjoy it if you can. Let that second of absorption show on your face. Show the person that they’ve had an impact. Thank them. Saying “Thank you very much” is enough, but you can take it a step further by thanking them for their thoughtfulness or telling them that they’ve made your day.

As Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming truly interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”5 One great trick is to imagine that the person you’re speaking with is the main star in a movie you’re watching right now. This will help you find them more interesting, and there’s even a chance that you’ll make them feel like a movie star, too. Charismatic people are masters at using positive associations, whether consciously or subconsciously, and you’ll often hear people rave about how “special” and “wonderful” these charismatics made them feel.

I tell all my clients: Don’t try to impress people. Let them impress you, and they will love you for it. Believe it or not, you don’t need to sound smart. You just need to make them feel smart.

If you were told the number of deaths caused by smoking every year, would you remember that exact figure three months from now? Probably not. But what if you were told that this figure was equal to three fully loaded Boeing 747 planes crashing into the earth every day for a year, with no survivors? That image you’d remember for a while.* A picture is worth a thousand words, indeed—and for good reason. Image generation has a powerful impact on emotions and physiological states and a high impact on brain function.6 Our brain’s language-processing abilities are much newer and less deeply wired than are our visual-processing abilities. When you speak in words, the brain has to relate the words to concepts, then translate the concepts into images, which is what actually gets understood. Why not speak directly in the brain’s own language? Whenever you can, choose to speak in pictures. You’ll have a much greater impact, and your message will be far more memorable.

Attention is a precious resource, just like time and money. Anytime you ask people to listen to what you say or read what you’ve written, you’re asking them to spend both their time and their attention on you. You’re asking them to give you some of their resources. What are you giving them in return? Whenever people are asked to expend any of their scarce resources, you can bet that they are (at least subconsciously) measuring the return on their investment. You can deliver value to others in multiple ways: Entertainment: Make your e-mail or meeting enjoyable. Information: Give interesting or informative content that they can use. Good feelings: Find ways to make them feel important or good about themselves.

The next time you’re out in a crowded environment, practice getting people to move aside for you. You could even do this on your way to work. First, visualize what a big gorilla would look like charging down the street. Then adopt the corresponding body language: imagine you’re a big gorilla about to go charging down the street and let your body express that. Take up as much space as you can. Inflate your chest and charge through the crowd. You might even swing your arms as you go, taking up yet more space.

Asking for someone’s opinion is a better strategy than asking for their advice, because giving advice feels like more effort, as they have to tailor a recommendation to your situation, whereas with an opinion, they can just spout whatever is on their mind.

The most effective and credible compliments are those that are both personal and specific. For instance, instead of “Great job,” you could say, “You did a great job,” or, better yet, “The way you kept your calm when that client became obnoxious was impressive.”

Depersonalize. As much as possible, communicate that what you’re critiquing is the behavior, not the person.

When you tell the person you are criticizing the corrective action you’d like to see, depersonalize the behavior change just as you had the criticism. Rather than asking, “Could you get the presentation done earlier?” say, “In the future, I’d greatly appreciate it if the presentation could be ready a few days in advance.”

Do not answer the phone in a warm or friendly manner. Instead, answer crisply and professionally. Then, only after you hear who is calling, let warmth or even enthusiasm pour forth in your voice. This simple technique is an easy and effective way to make people feel special.

The New York Times—one of the best and most respected newspapers in the United States—is purportedly written so simply that a tenth grader can understand it.1 The paper’s readership includes highly educated business executives, successful entrepreneurs, and CEOs. But the editors know that their readers are often thinking about six things at once, juggling far too many balls in the air.

Red conveys energy, passion. Wear red to wake up an audience. Black shows you’re serious and that you won’t take no for an answer. White exudes honesty and innocence, which is why defendants often choose it in the courtroom. Blue emits trust. The darker the shade, the deeper the level of trust it elicits. Gray is a good neutral, the quintessential color of business. Orange and yellow are not recommended. Because they are the first to attract the human eye, they are also the first to tire it.

Your presentation should have one main, simple, crystal-clear message, supported by three to five key points. Support each point with an entertaining story, interesting statistic, concrete example, or vivid metaphor. Make your presentation short and entertaining. Watch the value of each sentence.

After analyzing more than three dozen studies of charismatic leadership, Wharton School professor Robert House concluded that “expressing high performance expectations” of people while “communicating a high degree of confidence” in their ability to meet those expectations was the hallmark of charismatic leadership.

Articulate a bold vision, show your confidence in your ability to realize that vision, and act decisively to achieve it.

“Never take people deeper than they’re ready to go. It’s your job to not give in to the high, to not let them reveal more than they’re ready for.”

Over the years I’ve realized that this feeling of a safe cocoon can have other side effects. Sometimes, without realizing it, as people feel so safe and strong, they’ll venture too close to their own demons, ones that they’re not ready to face. This challenge is one of the few downsides that can accompany kindness or focus charisma.

You want to refine your practice of vulnerability, pay attention to the following: it’s not just what you say and what you share but also how you feel while you’re sharing.

To mitigate envy and resentment, reflect or transfer praise and glory. Highlight others who deserve praise and give people ownership of your success. To stop people from oversharing, interject a “me, too” story, or help them destigmatize if it’s too late to do so.


Germer, Christopher K. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion.

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