You too can have charisma
Published 05/08/2012 | 06:00
Suzanne Harrington explores human magnetism and discovers that we all have the potential to be charismatic
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 Nobody recognised her because she was travelling as her old self, Norma Jean. On the street, she asked the photographer, 'Do you want to see her?' Marilyn Monroe 'fluffed up her hair and struck a pose'. Suddenly, she was engulfed
Both the Obamas have it. Bill Clinton famously has it by the bucketload, but so too does Hillary, except hers tends to get overshadowed by his.
Oprah has it. So does the Dalai Lama, George Clooney and Lady Gaga. Gandhi had it, Michael Collins had it, Charles Haughey had it, Ronald Reagan had it, Steve Jobs had it. And Dracula. Dracula had loads of it. George W Bush and Gordon Brown have very little of it.
You can see how random the attribution of charisma is, and how it can be found even in people whom we dislike or of whom we disapprove.
Being charismatic does not automatically mean being nice or kind. You can use your charismatic powers for the power of good, such as Gandhi -- or the underdog-championing Lady Gaga, who is more charismatic than, say, Madonna, because she is funnier, more inclusive and more fallible.
Or you can use your powers for bad. You don't persuade 900 people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid if you haven't got considerable amounts of charisma, such as the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.
You don't get a bunch of dopey hippies fired up enough to brutally murder random strangers without ever leaving the house yourself either, unless your charismatic hold over your followers is incredibly powerful, as Charles Manson's was over his 'family'.
Let's not even go there with the genocidal tyrants -- Pol Pot was allegedly charismatic, as was Chairman Mao. Hitler must have been, too.
The principal misconception about charisma, however, is not that it can be harnessed in the wrong direction by charming monsters, but that it is something you are born with. That charisma is like eye colour or dyslexia; that you either have it or you don't.
Not so, says executive coach Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, 'The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism' (published by the Penguin Group, €27).
Anyone can learn charisma, the same as anyone can learn French or how to play the piano. It's a skill and an art, based on science, psychology and evolutionary biology, she says. It's not necessarily innate.
Media coach Joyce Newman agrees. Newman coaches executives, celebrity spokespeople, sports stars and authors by helping them to access and accentuate their charisma.
"Everyone can be charismatic," she told 'Forbes' magazine. "We are not born charismatic, we cultivate it in many ways. One way is by observing and learning from people who you think are charismatic.
"You don't need to copy them, but learn their secrets, try them on and fine-tune them until they fit you. It's a trial and error process."
But what will it do for you exactly?
"Charisma gets people to like you, trust you and want to be led by you," writes Fox Cabane. "Charismatic people seem to lead charmed lives: they have more romantic options, they make more money and they experience less stress."
Robert House, Wharton School business professor, notes that charismatic leaders "cause followers to become highly committed to the leader's mission, to make significant personal sacrifices and to perform above and beyond the call of duty".
So it's particularly handy to be charismatic in business or politics, but really it applies to everyone.
It seems logical that charismatic teachers get better results than less charismatic colleagues, that charismatic workers find it easier to charm their way forward than less charismatic co-workers.
Marilyn Monroe demonstrated how personal magnetism can be turned on and off like a light switch one day in New York in 1955, when she was out in public with a photographer and a magazine editor.
On the packed subway, nobody recognised her because she was travelling as her old self, Norma Jean. On the street, she asked the photographer, "Do you want to see her?" She "fluffed up her hair and struck a pose".
Suddenly, people around her realised who she was, and she was engulfed. And all by changing her body language and her outward projection -- she never uttered a word.
Charisma is presence. It is the impression of possessing high degrees of power and warmth. Power and warmth are an irresistible combination; just ask Monica Lewinsky. But charisma is not about bigging yourself up -- it's about bigging the other person up.
A charismatic person is like sunlight, lighting up a room, shining their light on the other person, making them glow.
A week before the British elections in 1886, back when being British PM meant being in charge of a large chunk of the planet, a young woman -- unnamed in Fox Cabane's account -- had dinner with the two candidates, first Gladstone, then Disraeli.
She told the press: "After dining with Mr Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England." Guess who won the election?
Fox Cabane suggests that with "a few simple tweaks, not deep value changes", anyone can turn their charisma up to 10. You just need to work on your presence, power and warmth.
Presence is that famous thing people say about Bill Clinton -- that he makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room. He is fully present.
Most people are only ever half listening -- in their heads they're making shopping lists or thinking about sex or whatever -- but what we don't realise is that "the human mind can read facial expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds", says Fox Cabane.
In other words, even if they are nodding and smiling at us, we instinctively know when the other person is not fully present.
But don't worry, most people are not fully present at any given time. In a 2,250-person Harvard study, psychologist Daniel Gilbert estimated that around half of an average person's time was spent "mind wandering".
Anyone who has ever practiced mediation will know that getting your mind to stop wandering is like trying to herd cats.
Fox Cabane says presence is all about focus, about being physically and mentally still and concentrating on the other person, rather than formulating your own responses to them in your head or, worse, staring over their shoulder at whatever else is happening.
Power and warmth are straightforward. Power is how you project yourself via your appearance and body language, warmth is your goodwill towards others.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are hardwired to gravitate towards people with power and warmth, just as we are hardwired to seek out sugar and fat; we perceive powerful, warm people as protectors, rather than attackers, which could have been the difference between life and death a few thousand years ago.
And given that language is a far more recently evolved skill than non-verbal communication, we detect and project charisma via body language and visual clues.
You can always tell when someone is doing a fake smile. Not only can we detect it, but researchers at Stanford discovered how insincere smiles, or attempts to facially mask your real feelings, provoke a threat-response arousal in others.
Smiling with teeth only, faking your interest, pretending not to be angry or sad -- other humans can see straight through you.
But you don't have to go to acting school to project charisma because, writes Fox Cabane, "your mind can't tell the difference between imagination and reality, [so] by creating a charismatic internal state, your body language will authentically display charisma".
She continues: "In terms of achieving charisma, your internal state is critical. Get the internal state right and the right charismatic behaviours and body language will pour forth automatically."
Like the 1936 Dale Carnegie classic 'How To Win Friends And Influence People', Fox Cabane's book is very much directed at the corporate world.
It's all about pitching deals, keynote speaking and giving presentations, which might as well be about space travel for all the relevance it has to those of us who live in the non- corporate world, but the core ideas are applicable everywhere -- we all have friends, we all have colleagues, we all have family.
And we all want to be charismatic to some degree, if for no greater reason than it will make our own lives easier. Charismatic people can be self-interested too, you know. Or just plain manipulative.
Because the mind can't tell the difference between real and unreal, using visualisation can create a charismatic mental state. This isn't as airy-fairy as it sounds.
During final exams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the suicide rate is so high (38pc higher than Harvard) that the MIT's Health Centre distributes visualisation CDs to students during the finals.
"Visualisation techniques have saved lives at MIT," a graduate told Fox Cabane.
Hugs work as well. Anxiety, which is not remotely charismatic, can be counteracted by a hug. Twenty seconds of hugging releases oxytocin. Known as the 'neuropeptide of trust', oxytocin reverses the arousal of fight-or-flight anxiety, and, according to the neuroscience resource 'Wise Brain Bulletin', you can release oxytocin just by imagining a hug.
That's what is meant by the mind not being able to differentiate real from non-real.
As well as imagining hugs, Fox Cabane advocates gratitude, goodwill and compassion to create your charismatic mental state. "Gratitude can be a great charisma conduit," she writes, adding that it "helps you live longer, healthier, and even happier".
When you think about gratitude's opposites -- resentment, neediness, desperation -- you can see what she means. But humans are "instinctively wired for hedonic adaption: the tendency to take our blessings for granted", she says.
And there's nothing more guaranteed to fire up guilt or resentment, or both, than some numpty telling you to count your blessings. Gratitude can only come from within yourself -- it's an inside job and has to be cultivated.
Goodwill, says Fox Cabane, is "the simple state of wishing others well", or, as Jung put it, "unconditional positive regard". Approaching someone with goodwill has a positive outcome for ourselves as well, as it releases serotonin and oxytocin, but, more significantly, it frees us up from expectation.
We are simply wishing the other person the best -- we don't worry about the outcome of our interaction, which means we are projecting only positives. We are not pushing or shoving.
But what if you are dealing with someone you can't stand? The challenge is to access your compassion, preferably not through gritted teeth.
Professor Paul Gilbert, author of 'The Compassionate Mind', describes the process of accessing your compassion: first, empathy, which understands the feelings of another person; then sympathy, which is being moved by their distress; and, last, compassion, which kicks in the desire to care for the distressed person.
Another neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, says that humans are the most empathic species of all. But how can empathy and compassion work if you dislike the other person?
Practice, practice, practice. If they are genuinely dreadful, try to imagine why. "Though it may feel awkward, uncomfortable or downright mushy, goodwill and compassion are truly valuable skills," writes Fox Cabane.
She suggest ramping it up by practicing Metta, the Buddhist word for loving kindness.
Obviously, none of this will work if you do not practice loving kindness on yourself. One of Paul Gilbert's main research areas is self-compassion -- if we show ourselves loving kindness, we have better mental health. It's that simple.
Also vital for good mental health and the ability to transmit charisma is good self-esteem and self-confidence, but really, self-compassion is crucial. It's all very well being able to light up a room, but if there is a nagging voice inside your head that always demands more of you, you need to be as kind to yourself as to those around you.
Liking yourself shows, and it's attractive.
Once you have got your body language, warmth, presence, goodwill and compassion all lined up, Fox Cabane identifies four different types of charisma: focus charisma, visionary charisma, kindness charisma and authority charisma.
Focus charisma is "primarily based on a perception of presence", she says. An executive who worked with Bill Gates says he has it: "Despite his unassuming appearance ... Bill does command the room. His presence is immediately felt ... it's that quality that draws people towards you and makes them want to listen to what you have to say."
Visionary charisma is all about belief and confidence. Think Steve Jobs. Although feared inside Apple, he had what one reporter called "a nearly messianic zeal ... Jobs doesn't sell computers. He sells the promise of a better world."
Think Martin Luther King having a dream. Think Joan of Arc. Don't think Jim Jones, even though he had an abundance of it.
Kindness charisma is embodied by the Dalai Lama and those who practice unconditional positive regard. "People who have never felt completely, wholeheartedly accepted suddenly feel truly seen and enveloped in acceptance," writes Fox Cabane of the Dalai Lama.
"This is kindness charisma in action. It connects with people's hearts and makes them feel welcomed, cherished, embraced and, most of all, completely accepted."
The most powerful of all is authority charisma. It's also the dodgiest. "Colin Powell and the Dalai Lama embody authority charisma, but so did Stalin and Mussolini," says Fox Cabane.
It doesn't necessarily mean being likeable, either.
When Michael Jordan played basketball for the Chicago Bulls, he was not Mr Popular with his team mates, but when needed, he was able to use his authority charisma to elevate the quality of play of the entire team.
While authority charisma has the advantage of getting you listened to and obeyed -- through your displays of power, self-confidence and status -- it is not necessarily the best form of charisma as it can be mistaken for arrogance and, more importantly, it inhibits the flow of feedback from others, making you appear out of reach.
Real charisma is all about connection. As Dale Carnegie put it: "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."
Or, as Fox Cabane tells her clients: "Don't try to impress people. Let them impress you, and they will love you for it."