Being charming. Is there a more enviable quality? We’d hate charming people if we didn’t love them so much.
I’ve covered how to be sexy and cool but charming, well, that’s a whole ‘nother beast. And what a beautiful beast it is. We’re going to pull together the research from many, many… well, far too many sources and create our own little Charm School here on the interwebz.
Let’s start with the most fundamental dynamic in how people evaluate one another. It’s how others judge you and how you judge others. And, amazingly, we get it wrong almost every time…
The Fundamental Dynamic
You know how people always say first impressions are oh-so-important? A good body of research shows they’re right. And, to add to that, once those impressions are set, experts say they’re exceedingly hard to change.
And that is downright scary. It’s a lot of pressure. We’re afraid of looking like an idiot when we first meet someone new. So often we try to impress them by appearing competent. Or maybe we play it cool.
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Or maybe you do both. But if you’re trying to be charming, that is a terrible idea…
Harvard research shows 80% of our judgments about people come down to warmth and competence. And the more important quality is warmth. We’ll take a lovable moron over a competent jerk more often than not.
Being perceived as an idiot shouldn’t be your biggest fear — being seen as cold should. You want to be in the right hand column, not the left.
So what’s the most important thing to do when it comes to being seen as warm? Former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program, Robin Dreeke, says it’s as simple as smiling more.
Moreover, when meeting someone new, studies show people are unlikely to judge the interaction by how interesting you are. They’re nervous too. Like you, they are more focused on whether they’re screwing up.
From The Art of Conversation:
Research has found that with a serious topic or a good friend, we measure a conversation’s success by how enthralled we were by what the other person said. Whereas, the less familiar the other person, the more trivial the topic, the likelier we are to rate the experience by our own performance.
So to be charming, think less about being impressive, more about being warm, and more about whether the other person feels like they’re performing well.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So we know what’s important and the right attitude to take. But how should we act? And what error do we commonly make in our behavior? Well, to get this right, we need to take a lesson from… Would you believe me if I said “racists”?
Put Some Effort In, Willya?
Racists often have to pretend to not be racist. And that requires work. So they put in the effort that many of us don’t when interacting with others. So research shows, believe it or not, racists often make a better first impression:
We tested the hypothesis that, ironically, Blacks perceive White interaction partners who are more racially biased more positively than less biased White partners, primarily because the former group must make more of an effort to control racial bias than the latter.
If you think I’m encouraging or condoning racism you’re insane. Don’t be racist. But do put in some effort when meeting others. If it can make racists come off better, imagine what it can do for you.
Making an effort sounds obvious but we just don’t do it. We get lazy. Research shows that couples enjoy time together more when they pretend it’s their first date. Why? When you’re on a first date you put more effort in.
Think of a gracious host at a party. They try. They put in effort to make you feel welcome. To get to know you. To make sure you are introduced to others, that you have a drink and are comfortable. And when you feel awkward at the party you want to cling to them. Why? They went out of their way to be nice to you. That’s charm.
Research shows that how you go into a conversation often determines the result. When we’re socially optimistic and expect others to like us, they often do. Meanwhile mistrust can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So make an effort. Don’t play it cool. I like to frame it in my mind as: “How would I act if I had wanted to meet this person for a long time and finally got the opportunity?”
(To learn the 4 secrets to reading body language like an expert, click here.)
So we know the right attitude and how to behave. But we’re not out of the woods yet. You may find yourself in the ninth circle of Small Talk Hell where traitors to charming conversation are condemned to an eternity of making comments about the weather…
What is the point of small talk? How do you do it well? And how do you break free from it and connect on a deeper level?
Small Talk = Seeking Similarity
What should your goal be when making small talk? Ask questions to find points of similarity. Similarity is extraordinarily powerful when it comes to bonding and this is backed by more studies than you would ever want to read.
Best part? The similarity doesn’t even have to be something deep or serious to have profound effects.
From How To Have A Good Day:
Lauren Rivera, a sociologist at Northwestern University, found that 74% of recruiting managers at prestigious firms reported that their most recent hire had a “personality similar to mine.” How did they decide they were “similar”? It wasn’t a particularly deep assessment. One of the most important factors was having familiar leisure pursuits, such as a shared interest in sports or technology.
And when you find that similarity, don’t be afraid to show some enthusiasm. You don’t have to hop up and down. Be calm and speak slowly but positive emotions, passion, and being excited about something are good. Isn’t that who you’d like to spend time with?
Professor Stephen Ceci taught his class the way he had for the past 20 years, replicating nearly everything imaginable — except he started speaking with more enthusiasm. What happened?
His student ratings went up — in every single category.
And you want your body language to be open and comfortable. Think “expanding.” Body movements that go up and out are good. Anything that compresses or squeezes is bad. Here’s FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke:
I always want to make sure that I’m showing good, open, comfortable non-verbals. I just try to use high eyebrow elevations. Basically, anything going up and elevating is very open and comforting. Anything that is compressing: lip compression, eyebrow compression, where you’re squishing down, that’s conveying stress.
So you know how to handle small talk — but now how do you escape it? Nothing’s worse than being mired in banality. We’re going to cast three powerful scientific charm spells at once…
Hit them with the trifecta of a sincere compliment, vulnerability, and a request for advice. This is a great combo for deepening a bond, humanizing yourself and taking the conversation to another level.
Is the person you’re talking to in good shape? Then it’s as simple as, “You look like you hit the gym a lot. I’ve really let myself go over the past year. I’d really appreciate any exercise tips you have.”
You paid them an honest compliment, you opened up about something many people might be reluctant to admit, and positioned them as an expert. Who wouldn’t be flattered?
(To learn the top 6 influence techniques of hostage negotiators, click here.)
By asking for advice, you build a more trusting connection and move on to a meatier subject. And it gets them talking. You just need to focus on listening. Problem is, most of us are terrible at listening. What’s the secret to being a good listener?
They Need To Know You’re Listening
At some point someone has angrily asked you, “Are you listening to me?!” And you probably responded, “Of course, I am.” And you probably were. So what’s the problem here? You weren’t making it clear you were listening.
And the best way to do that is to ask good questions. If you were to say, “Every morning I dream about poisoning my co-worker’s coffee” and someone responded with, “Arsenic and cyanide are old standbys but have you considered thallium? It’s odorless, colorless and tasteless” this would make two things clear. First, they are definitely listening to you. Second, this is not someone you want to make angry.
Robin Dreeke says the best questions are open-ended, beginning with “how” or “what.” They’re great because someone can’t easily answer them with one word and they keep the conversation going.
Actively showing interest in others is powerful. When people speak, the best responses are both active and constructive. What’s that mean?
It is engaged, enthusiastic, curious and has supportive nonverbal action. Ask questions. Be excited. Ask for details. Smile. Touch. Laugh.
You want to let them do the bulk of the talking but you don’t want this to feel like an interrogation or a therapist’s office. You need to talk too. Share something related, preferably emphasizing similarity yet again, and bounce the ball back with another open-ended question.
Remember what the research said: they’ll judge the interaction by how well they feel they did. So do not play the one-up game, where you’re trying to top their story. They’ll feel bad and you’ll end up in the cold-competent quadrant. No bueno.
You can accept everything they say without having to agree with everything they say. Nod your head and don’t pick fights. So none of that “I was just being honest” argument-inducing nonsense. To quote political communication expert Frank Luntz, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”
Directness is the privilege of intimacy. Don’t be blunt with people you barely know and rarely be blunt with people you do know. That’s acting like warmth doesn’t matter, and as we saw above, it matters more than anything else.
(To learn a clinical psychologist’s 7 steps for making difficult conversations easy, click here.)
Okay, the conversation is humming along and you’re pretty darn charming. Time to hit them with the knockout punch…
Give Them The Thing We All Want
Should we give them a big, flattering compliment and tell them they’re awesome? Nope.
The fact is people don’t just want to be seen positively; they want to be seen as they see themselves. What’s the thing we all want? To feel understood.
Psychologists call this the desire for self-verification, and it is a profound and universal need. People become really uncomfortable when they get compliments (or criticism) they feel they genuinely don’t deserve. What this means for you is that praising someone for a quality they don’t believe they possess can backfire on you big-time. The best way to steer clear of this problem is to stick with truthful affirmations. In other words, affirm the abilities and accomplishments that you have direct evidence of—the ones that you know to be authentic and genuinely admire.
So how do you do this? You’ve been putting effort into the conversation, right? Asking good questions? Well, then it’s not too hard to suss out how this person sees themselves and what traits they value.
If you listen to people, they will tell you who they are. And professor Sam Gosling (who I think of as the academic Sherlock Holmes) says what they tell you is usually accurate:
Identity claims are deliberate statements we make about our attitudes, goals, values, etc… One of the things that’s really important to keep in mind about identity statements is because these are deliberate, many people assume we are being manipulative with them and we’re being disingenuous, but I think there’s little evidence to suggest that that goes on. I think generally people really do want to be known. They’ll even do that at the expense of looking good. They’d rather be seen authentically then positively if it came down to that choice.
So compliment them on who they tell you they are. It’s not that hard. Former FBI lead international hostage negotiator Chris Voss says it’s as simple as listening and paraphrasing what they say to you.
And even if you get it wrong, you’re still doing great. They’ll correct you. This is called “getting to know them better.” And the fact that you’re trying to get to know them better is very, very flattering. Humbly revise your statement, paraphrasing what they told you.
This is what leads to that powerful feeling of “this person gets me.” And nothing feels better than that.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Charm School students, class is dismissed. We’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and learn how to do all of this so it’s sincere…
This is how to be charming:
- The Fundamental Dynamic: Warmth is more important than competence. Better to be seen as a lovable idiot than a cold, competent Evil Genius.
- Put in some effort, willya?: They will judge the interaction by how they feel they did. So help them do good. Gracious hosts make an effort.
- Small talk = seek similarity: And once you’ve found it, offer a sincere compliment, show vulnerability, and ask for advice. You hate small talk? Me too. You’ve done a great job of reading this so far. Sometimes I have trouble reading long blog posts. What’s your secret?
- They need to know you’re listening: Ask open-ended questions, be active and constructive, and contribute but don’t one-up.
- Give them the thing we all want: We all want to feel understood. Understand?
Now I get to sit back and wait for the emails from friends saying, “Eric, why don’t you do any of this when I’m talking with you?” Well, the best football coaches are not necessarily the best football players. But I try.
If you’re not naturally charming (and I’m usually about as charming as a brick through a plate glass window) this stuff takes some practice. Which raises an important issue: if you make these changes, are you being inauthentic?
Not if you have the other person’s best interests in mind. When I spoke to Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda he said:
Changing yourself is not inauthentic. Part of what people do is they change. They evolve, they can grow, and they can change themselves. So what is it to be authentic? It doesn’t mean you can’t change, but it does mean that the changes that you make, again, have to be aligned with the sense of who you really are, and who you want to be.
In fact, research shows that when you try to be your best self, you end up presenting your true self:
In sum, positive self-presentation facilitates more accurate impressions, indicating that putting one’s best self forward helps reveal one’s true self.
To be charming, try to bring out the best in others. And you don’t have to be inauthentic:
Just be the best version of who you already are.
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