Everyone wants to be more charismatic. Everyone wants others to think they’re charming and likeable. But have you ever stopped to think about what these words actually mean? What makes one person totally magnetic and attractive while another person bores or irritates us? By the end of this book, you may find yourself with some very different answers to these questions than you started…
In the chapters that follow, we’ll look at the key principles behind better conversations, intelligent empathy and social awareness, so you can start to have more engaging and more connected interactions with anyone – whether that’s professionally, romantically or with friends.
We’ll see that the biggest roadblock to being a fascinating and likeable person is, in fact, a misunderstanding of what “charm” actually is. Even if you don’t feel like you’re currently a great conversationalist, and even if you loathe small talk and consider yourself an introvert, rest assured that it is possible to become more charismatic, and anyone can do it!
Let’s dive in.
Have you ever noticed how a mother and her newborn baby “communicate”? They stare intently at each other, and whatever expression or noise the baby makes, the mother mimics it – amplifies it, even – and the baby watches, enraptured. What you are watching is a primal and ancient form of communication that we all develop as babies, and which our species developed in its earliest history.
Many people tend to think of conversation as a verbal thing – but deep, true social connection actually starts way before a word has been spoken. Mirroring is a big part of this. The idea is that humans, being social animals, evolved certain abilities to monitor one another and adjust themselves accordingly in social situations. This helps us feel heard, seen, understood, and more firmly part of the group.
We mirror whenever we match another person’s verbal or nonverbal communication. This could be mimicking their posture or body language, using the same words, inflection or volume of speech that they use, or adopting similar facial expressions to align with theirs. Most of us do this so automatically that we don’t have to be told why we’re doing it. But what we are usually trying to communicate is the simple message: I see you. I understand. We’re on the same page.
Rather than mirroring being an optional trick, it’s really the foundation of all good communication and empathy. Consider what it feels like when people don’t mirror. For example, you’re feeling upset and vulnerable. Meanwhile, the person you’re talking to is responding flippantly, their voice louder than yours, their tone more relaxed, and their body language more energetic and restless. You probably wouldn’t feel like they were listening, right?
Or imagine you’re excitedly sharing some happy news, and the other person doesn’t reflect that excitement in their facial expression, voice, or words. Sure, you know that they don’t feel the same excitement as you do, but you’d register their unwillingness to mirror as a definite lack of courtesy.tific evidence for this: in a: A similar:
Using mirroring techniques is more a question of enhancing what you might already be doing naturally – and it has to be natural! Take a look at some examples:
• A customer is phoning in with a complaint. You personally feel the issue is pretty trivial, but they’re clearly upset. You decide to speak as they do: you drop your pitch, talk seriously and a little more formally, and literally cut and paste some of their phrases to repeat back to them. They’re speaking slowly, so you speak more slowly too. Instead of saying, “yes, I get where you’re coming from” you show them by reflecting what they’re communicating. This is an example of verbal mirroring.
• You’re on a date with someone you like, and you want them to know you do! So, when you’re out walking, you notice they occasionally brush their hand against your shoulder or arm. A few minutes later, you do the same to them. The nonverbal message is crystal clear! They lean in over the table during a conversation, and you do the same. They smile and laugh, and so do you. Unconsciously you are both becoming increasingly aware of a kind of physical synchronicity, “dynamic coupling,” and alignment. This nonverbal mirroring is a precursor to, shall we say, more obvious psychical synchronicity later on…
• You’re at your therapist’s office and relating some uncomfortable feelings. The therapist doesn’t exactly match your words or adopt your physical posture, but he does say, “I can see how difficult you’re finding this,” and adjusts his own demeanor to make space for that. If he had been grinning ear to ear or looking bored, you’d probably have felt unseen and a little disrespected. Emotional mirroring is what it sounds like: holding up a metaphorical mirror to someone’s emotional state, as if to say, “I can see how you feel.” Sometimes, all this requires is that we listen actively, without interrupting, then paraphrase what we’ve just heard, while not adding our own interpretation or reaction.
If done right, mirroring will make the people you’re talking to feel truly seen and acknowledged in a way that they might not be able to consciously recognize, but which will still have them feeling warm and receptive to you. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that being a good conversationalist is about saying intelligent or funny things, or being a fascinating person. Though this helps, what really makes people feel connected to you is synchronicity – are you on their wavelength? Do you get them? This is an emotional connection rather than a verbal or intellectual one.
That said, mirroring can be done wrong! Avoid overdoing it or making things awkward by being too obvious. You need to be as natural as possible – if people are aware that you’re “copying” them, the results could be disastrous. Never mirror someone when you’re genuinely not engaged – it will come across as manipulative (ever felt this off a pushy salesperson?). Also, it may pay to deliberately avoid matching speech or body language during a conflict. You obviously don’t want to mimic someone who rolls their eyes, raises their voice, swears or scowls! Instead, do what you can to acknowledge what they feel without allowing yourself to get angry, upset or rude.
Consider also that mirroring is best done one-on-one. In groups, a better tactic is to take a read on the general emotional vibe and try to pitch your verbal and nonverbal expression to fit that. For example, if everyone is fairly low-energy and casual, don’t get fired up and talk too loudly. Whatever you do, don’t overthink it and allow yourself to get distracted from the living, breathing conversation as it unfolds. If you stay aware in the present, you might notice, for example, that someone is mirroring you – or that they are not responding well to you mirroring them.
Whether you go for verbal, nonverbal or emotional mirroring (or all three!), start small and go slow. Build the connection gradually and sincerely. A little can go a long way, so watch the effect you’re having first and adjust accordingly. For example, you might notice that when you mirror someone’s posture, they immediately switch to a different one. In this case, dial things way back!
One thing to remember when it comes to mirroring (and conversation in general) is that, according to Mr. Hoffeld, author of The Science of Selling, “It’s not something you do to someone. It’s something you do with someone. The very process of mirroring will help you keep your focus where it should be – on the other person.”
Utilize the rule of three
William James, widely considered one of the founding fathers of psychology, claimed that “The deepest craving in every human being is the desire to be appreciated.” Conversations usually go wrong for one reason: we are too busy in our own worlds to notice or appreciate others!
Management coach Karl Albrecht has a simple formula that will help you break this tendency and have more authentic conversations with others. According to him, all conversations consist of three parts:
• Declaratives (facts or opinions being stated as facts)
• Qualifiers or "softeners"
The rule of three states that we should never say three declaratives in a row without breaking them up with a question or qualifier. Again, this allows us to talk with people and not at them or to them. We always need to be aware that most conversations are not purely verbal. People will hear your words, but they’ll also respond to how well they feel you respect and appreciate them. You can say all the right things, but the conversation will be a flop if it doesn’t feel right!
Let’s take a closer look. Declarations are statements of fact. More realistically, they’re also when people act as though something is a fact. Have you ever noticed that some people always feel like they’re lecturing you, or standing on a soap box? This is what happens if your entire conversational repertoire is pure declaration. “The trouble with Britain is that it never had a proper Revolution like in France” or “you’d be an idiot to eat gluten these days” are opinions presented with more certainty than they should be. Do this, and you may bore, irritate, disrespect or alienate your audience – who are not really an “audience” at all!
That said, you don’t have to drop all your opinions, passion and perspective – just keep it balanced. One way to do this is by injecting some thoughtful questions. This is a powerful way to share the limelight, demonstrate interest in the other person, and communicate respect and openness. It signals that a conversation is not just an opportunity for you to say your piece – it’s a collaborative social exercise. “I’m a bit of a Francophile, I’m afraid – I’m curious, did you live in France for long?”
Suppose you catch yourself about to make a declaration for the third or fourth time in a row, pause and see if you can convert it into a question. Instead of saying, for example, “the presidential debate was a shambles,” instead ask, “what did you make of the debate?”
Another way is to insert a few conditionals or softeners. This is like expressing an opinion or making a declaration without beating people over the head with it! Good conversationalists understand this intuitively, but most of us have to learn to do it. It’s more than good manners – it’s a way of saying that although you have your opinion, you acknowledge that others have theirs. For example:
“I know I don’t speak for everyone, but I think that show is a little overrated.”
“From my perspective, I can’t imagine a better place to live!”eve that actually happened in:
Using statements like, “it seems to me” or “I might be wrong, but…” conveys certain respect and accommodation of other people – even and especially if you disagree. What this does is send a signal that you primarily value the other person’s feelings and your connection to them above your own need to speechify or be viewed in a certain way.
The great thing about this rule of three is how easy it is to use. At first, simply see what happens when you become aware of the relative proportion of these three ingredients in your everyday conversations. Notice how others speak. Notice how you speak. Look at conversations you really enjoyed and note what proportion was declarative.
It’s tempting to go off and expound on your opinion, especially if you really are an expert or you’re passionate about something. But just remind yourself that this is not what the function of a conversation is. You will come across as far more empathetic, charming and likeable if you give equal psychological space to the other person’s perspective. Even if you don’t believe it at first, trust that using this rule actually makes conversations more rewarding for you, too!
When you use a qualifier or ask a question, others will instantly feel more seen and appreciated, and it’s this that will make you appear more charismatic and appealing. Often people attempt to be more charming and only end up hogging the conversation as they try to come across a particular way – but this just backfires. People like people who make them feel good. It’s as simple as that!
Similarly, remember that a good conversation is never purely a fact-finding mission or a competition to see who is smartest. It’s about connection. The next time you’re in a conversation that feels like it’s going nowhere, revive it by asking a question – you may find that some of your best and most interesting talks are those where you barely make any declarations at all.
The “ARE” method for avoiding small talk
Are you one of those people that “hates small talk”? Perhaps it’s not that you genuinely hate small talk; it’s just that you don’t know how to make it work. Yes, striking up a conversation with a stranger can be pretty awkward and even exhausting, but the truth is that it needn’t be this difficult. The ARE method can take a lot of the hard work out of small talk and get you into the interesting stuff – i.e. the big talk! (Later in the book, we’ll see how small talk isn’t even always necessary…)
The ARE method is the creation of Dr. Carol Fleming, and is a simple acronym that helps you remember three easy steps:
A = Anchor
You start with something that links you to the other person. No matter how much of a stranger they are, look for a shared experience or connection with them. It doesn’t have to be deep, and it really doesn’t have to be clever or entertaining. Thinking you need a smart “pick up line” or equivalent will just make you nervous and come across as unnatural.
An obvious example: you’re at a wedding and say to someone, “wow, that dessert was amazing, right?” Or you’re on a long haul flight and say, “Let’s hope we have some nice weather to look forward to when we land!”
R = Reveal
You’ve broken the ice, and now you need to move things along by revealing something about yourself that relates to the anchor. To keep with our two examples, you could say, “I’ve always had a thing for good tiramisu – I can thank my Italian grandmother for that!” or “I’m not originally from around here, so I guess I’m still not used to the cold weather…”
E = Encourage
The final step is to get the other person to reveal, in turn, a little about themselves. You could say, “What about you? What dessert is your favorite?” or “So, are you leaving home or heading back home?”
And that’s it. What tends to happen from that point is that the other person has a sufficient enough opening to share something that will then get the ball rolling. The ARE trick is not something to follow by the letter, though – you might choose to open with an anchor, pause, wait for a response, go for the reveal, pause, and then encourage, rather than delivering a little speech all at once (which can sound like a cheesy movie script!).
So, that’s it for the structure, but you still may be a little stumped when it comes to what to talk about. Luckily, there’s a helpful acronym for that too! This acronym is FORM:
F = Family
This is a perennially safe and easy topic. Do they have siblings, and how many? Kids? People can talk for eons about their children.
O = Occupation
Now, you don’t want to ask the most boring question in the history of everything (“so… what do you do?”), but you can get far by asking more detailed questions such as “What do you like most about your work?” or “How interesting! Did you always want to be a dog hypnotherapist?”
R = Recreation
Ask about hobbies, movies, books, travel or simply what people do in their spare time. This could be as simple as asking about their tastes and preferences.
M = Motivation
In other words, their plans, visions, goals, and dreams. Basically, this is asking about what matters to them and why they do what they do.
You can combine the above, of course. For example, you could say, “Wow, you had four siblings! I’m from a big family too. Do you think you’ll have a lot of kids when you’re older, too?” This combines Family and a little Motivation. Or you can say something like, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a professional poetry teacher before – do you read a lot of poetry in your spare time, too?” This combines Occupation and Recreation.
Whatever you go with, understand that some awkwardness is always a possibility, but don’t get too hung up on it. Keep smiling and being relaxed and curious, and most people will respond well. A few other tips include saying your name more than once so people can remember it, and recalling a detail about what they tell you for the next time you meet. “Oh, hello again! How did it go with your daughter’s graduation?”
Finally, it’s worth noting that even if you do everything right, sometimes small talk just doesn’t get off the ground, and you find yourself wanting to make a retreat. That’s OK! Here’s a useful trick to escape a conversational sinking ship. Make up an excuse but remember to include the word “need.” For example, “well, it’s been nice chatting, but I need to go and check on my kids, you know what they can be like!” or “Oh, I hope you’ll excuse me, I need to go and say hello to an old friend I haven’t seen in ages.” Then, if you like, you can smooth the departure by saying something nice to reiterate what you’ve talked about. “It was great to meet you – good luck with tomorrow!”
Avoid long responses with the 1-minute traffic light rule
Here’s an uncomfortable truth that, if you only acknowledge it, will make you a much better conversationalist overnight: other people are nowhere near as interested in hearing you talk about yourself as you think. Sad but true! If you ever doubt this, simply consider how often you yourself feel bored when someone goes on and on and on about themselves in a conversation.
Marty Nemko has what he calls a “traffic light rule” that will improve your conversations – especially if you’re a rambler. How do you know if you are a rambler? Well, if you regularly get the feeling that people are tuning you out, then that’s a red flag. Take heart – your story probably is interesting and relevant, you’re likely just taking too long to tell it.
As an unspoken rule, assume you have about 1 minute to make your point, and then let the conversation flow again. During the first 30 seconds, the light is green, and you can assume you’re getting your listener’s full attention. In the next 30 seconds, the light switches to yellow, and the listener’s attention may start to wane. Beyond 1 minute, the light goes red – they’re not listening anymore.
When we’re telling a tale, we can forget the passage of time because, to be frank, telling is usually more fun than listening. But consider that stand-up comedians can work for months on a “tight five” – i.e. a set where they deliver five uninterrupted minutes of speaking. The fact that even professionals who dedicate considerable effort to the task sometimes fail to hold people’s attention beyond 5 minutes tells you everything!
Now, you don’t need to get all self-conscious and start checking your watch as you talk. But it might be a good exercise to rehearse a little on your own with a timer, just to get a sense of how long a minute or 30 seconds is (and it’s longer than you think!). You can also pay close attention to your listeners, too. If they’re sitting in rapt attention or laughing their heads off, begging you to continue, then continue. If they fidget, shift focus or start looking bored, wrap up. Whatever you do, don’t double down once they show clear signs of fatigue – you’ll only earn a reputation as a relentless bore.
And to pre-empt a possible objection: you don’t have to accept rambling from others, either. Sometimes we don’t want to hand over the conversational baton because we’re worried that we’ll never get a word in edgewise again if we do. But remember that a conversation is not a tug of war – it’s a friendly tennis match.
If you’re holding the ball all the time, you’re no longer having a game at all. Bounce it back and relax – you can always talk later again, if you still want to. If you’re a chatterbox who genuinely feels that they have a lot of interesting information to share, don’t get discouraged. People will listen to you more if you present yourself in a legitimately engaging way. Here are a few tips if you secretly suspect others find you a bit boring and rambly:
• Leave people wanting more. Don’t share everything all at once. Allow others to ask, if they’re curious. Sometimes, people are more interested in what you have to say when you leave a few things unsaid. If you say, “well, remind me one day to tell you about that” and they don’t press there and then for you to elaborate, then you know that you can safely end your story and move on.
• Slow down. It sounds counterintuitive, but don’t rush in a panic to get your point across. Rather than squeezing in as much data as possible, focus on your delivery, and make your speech interesting by modulating your voice.
• Think before you speak. You don’t have to plan a little speech in your head, but don’t just open your mouth, start talking, and then decide what you want to say. A good trick is to teach yourself the habit of simply being quiet instead of saying things like “um.” Try to be as concise as possible.
As you talk with anyone, imagine that the conversation is like a balloon floating above the ground. Every time you bounce it with your hand, it floats up high again, but immediately starts to sink to the floor. A good conversation is lively, with everyone taking a turn to bop the balloon, which never dips too low to the ground. A bad conversation is one where someone grabs the balloon and holds it, allows it to fall onto the floor completely, or stands alone in a corner and bounces it by themselves, never giving anyone else a chance. Nobody’s going to want to stand around and just watch, are they?
• Most people fail to be charming in conversations because they misunderstand what it really means to be charming. But anyone can build their charisma by practicing a few concrete skills.
• Firstly, use mirroring to signal connection and understanding. Whether it’s verbally, nonverbally, or even emotionally, mirroring can build rapport between you and the other person.
• Use Albrecht’s “rule of three” to help you have more balanced conversations, i.e. ones where you do enough listening. What you say can either be a Declarative (facts or opinion being stated as facts), Questions, or Qualifiers (or "softeners"). The rule is not to have more than three declaratives in a row – instead, use a question or softener to keep things balanced.
• Similarly, the ARE method is a helpful tool to help you nail small talk easily. It stands for Anchor, Reveal, and Encourage. First, identify a shared experience, then reveal something about yourself connected to that anchor, then finally encourage the other person to share, too.
• With small talk topics, remember the acronym FORM: Family, Occupation, Recreation (hobbies and interests), and Motivation (goals).
• You can avoid overly long-winded responses by remembering the 1 minute traffic light rule. The first 30 seconds or so is a green light to speak as you will, the next 30 seconds is an orange light – watch out for waning interest – and beyond a minute is a red light, where you will likely lose your listener’s attention. Keep it short!