(How to) Turn on the Charisma!

Deliberate Charisma: a built-in feature of the brain-face connection

You doubtless know that your body language can trigger emotions in other people, sometimes with a positive effect (for example, people around you will feel more cheerful if you seem happy) and sometimes with a negative effect (people around you will feel more anxious if you’re upset). To the extent you can select your own body language you can choose the emotional effect you have on the people around you. I’m calling this “deliberate charisma,” although it’s probably better known by the emotional intelligence term “resonance”.

If this sort of thing interests you I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book “Blink” which describes some really fascinating research into the strong connections within everyone’s brain between the emotions we feel and the facial expressions we show — and vice versa. Gladwell interviews academic researchers who found that people who see other people smiling feel happier, and people who see other people frowning feel sadder, and so on. More surprisingly, these researchers discovered that people who smile feel happier simply because their faces are making smiles, while people who frown feel sadder — and this appears to happen even when the only thing influencing these people is their own facial expressions, without any other influence. One might go so far as to suggest that facial expressions cause emotions as much as emotions cause facial expressions; the emotional centers of the brain are just that tightly linked to the muscles of the face.

Another interesting finding backed by research is that the connections between emotions and expressions are highly contagious. Seeing one person smile can cause a second person to smile involuntarily, which can then infect yet another person when the second person’s smile triggers theirs. Of course, a smile is only contagious if it’s genuine, with the corners of the eyes crinkling and all — just baring one’s teeth at someone doesn’t have the same effect.

There are well-known applications for this knowledge, the most famous of which is “method acting.” Method actors induce an emotional state in themselves which gives them the realistic appearance of the character they are playing in order to generate a strong response in their audience.

What I am about to recommend to you, which I’m calling deliberate charisma, is a simple visualization exercise that you can use to personally project the emotional climate you choose for your customers and co-workers.

Here’s the trick: you can quickly and easily reverse engineer your own body language simply by remembering the sight of someone else’s body language. In particular, if you can recall a particular facial expression you have seen before that gives you a strong enough emotional response it will naturally bring out the body language you need to show in order to trigger the emotional response you want someone else to have.

I had an interesting experience the other day that proved to me that we can easily apply deliberate charisma to our everyday lives. In theory anybody can do it — see what you think.

On the day in question it was beautiful and sunny here in Seattle, but I was stressed, and by the end of the day it began to occur to me that I wasn’t much fun to be around. Even though I hadn’t given up trying to smile and make cheerful conversation the way I usually do, judging by the consistently distant response I was getting I suspected that something in my body language negated my attempts to be friendly. (As I later explained to my wife: “I had crappy resonance today.”)

While running errands at the end of my stressful day I remembered the connection between emotions and facial expressions and realized that I had a perfect opportunity to experiment on myself.

Since I wanted to be able to give upbeat emotions to others, I would need to induce upbeat body language in myself. To accomplish this I decided to visualize someone smiling at me. It felt weird at first, but after a minute I remembered meeting a beautiful tiny infant at my local Starbucks a couple of months ago whose intense smile and gaze was so contagious it left me grinning as wide as my face would possibly stretch.

Almost immediately I noticed a change. A hint of a smile opened out on my face, just a little, and all of a sudden my facial muscles thawed. I yawned, my face loosened even more, and I stood up a little straighter, like gravity had lessened slightly. Then I tried smiling for real — it was not only much easier than before, I felt different, too — better, lighter.

Then I tried smiling at the next person I saw (remember, this is Seattle: it’s OK to smile at strangers here, if you can believe it). The other person hesitated at first, then smiled back, unable to resist the impulse. Mission accomplished!

Whether or not you’ve tried this on yourself, please let me know what you think.

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