We tend to think of charisma as a quality that someone has or does not have – something divinely or genetically conferred. Generally, we can all agree on whose got charisma. Former President Bill Clinton has it in spades. Richard Nixon, who achieved the same office but not the same widespread appeal, was severely lacking.
Now, a growing body of research suggests charisma is something even Nixon could have had; indeed, it’s a gift we all can have. That’s because charisma is not something we’re born with but something that’s given to us by other people. The key is knowing how to act so people will confer upon us this undefinable magnetism known as charisma.
“Charisma is not about the individual. It’s about how others feel in that person’s presence,” says communications consultant Lou Solomon, adding that Clinton’s charisma is evidenced in part as a conversational style that “makes the other person feel acknowledged and important, like they’re the only other person on the planet.”
What a charismatic person says and does “releases those around them into a more enjoyable state,” says Solomon, founder of Interact in Charlotte, N.C. “When people enjoy themselves in your presence, when they trust in you and connect with you, they assign charisma to you.”
According to Scientific American Mind magazine, charisma is a “magic dust” that’s manufactured by the individual in partnership with those who follow or admire them. But the person has to bring the right ingredients.
The main ones are nonverbal social cues referred to as “honest signals” by the MIT researchers who studied their impact on success in different business scenarios, including salary negotiations and business pitches. The honest signals that make people more receptive to negotiators’ or presenters’ propositions included sustained eye contact, responsive and engaging facial expressions, fully facing the other person when interacting, and drawing them out, Solomon says.
Charismatic people listen attentively, drive conversation with questions and create an atmosphere in which others become more outgoing. The “magic dust” is not only something they give off; it’s something they draw forth from others.
When communicating, “Charismatic people realize it’s not about them. When they talk, it’s an act of sharing,” says communications trainer Robyn Hatcher, founder of SpeakEtc. in New York.
They think less in terms of telling and more in terms of offering and giving, even during a speech with no two-way communication. “They use inclusive ‘we’ language, and stories and diction that convey, ‘I’m one of you. We’re in this together,’” Hatcher says.
“This makes listeners feel comfortable and trusting, and what they give back to the speaker is this quality of charisma.”
For this give back to occur, “A leader needs to know and communicate three stories: who I am, who we are and where we’re going,” Solomon says.
Those three stories make up another indispensable “magic dust” ingredient – the capacity for the individual to be seen by devotees as advancing the group’s interest. Charismatic folks develop and relate personal narratives that come to be seen as emblematic of the group’s experience and identity, Solomon says.
To trust someone to lead in the right direction, it helps if we see them as one of us, she adds. A charismatic politician limns the history and culture of the nation. A charismatic CEO taps into the company’s mission and values.
In quick-hit encounters such as networking events, where such in-depth understanding is not possible, the capacity comes from asking questions to establish commonalities. “Curiosity about other people is one of the greatest skills you can develop and a great compliment to other people,” Solomon says.
Vigor is another “magic dust” ingredient that comes across in a person’s gesticulations and intonations, as well as the way they work a room.
To grasp how charisma depends on group dynamics and is a developable attribute, it may help to set aside the magic dust metaphor and think of it as a type of magnetism. For charisma to happen, you need the two parties – the magnet and the magnetized. On the part of the magnet, the qualities that tend to attract or pull can be developed and strengthened “like a muscle,” Solomon says.
Seeing those qualities as a set of particular skills and signals “moves the notion of charisma out of the realm of the mysterious,” she adds, “and into what’s tangible and teachable.”
© CTW Features