A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how he could become more charismatic.
Because the term “charismatic” has unhelpful religious connotations, let’s begin by being clear what he was actually asking. A person is “charismatic” when he or she has the ability to communicate a vision to others in a way that makes them sign up for making it real. Sometimes the vision is large (“Change the world!”) sometimes it is relatively small (“Become as cool as me!”).
My friend asked me how he could become more charismatic because he has seen me do the charisma thing a lot. This relates to my previous blogging on practical prophecy. A prophet has to be charismatic, it’s a requirement to get people to actually move.
Before he asked me about it, I would not have thought charisma was something that could be explained in detail. But questions properly posed sometimes elicit knowledge the person answering was not consciously aware of holding. That happened in this case; I found myself explaining four modes of charisma.
Here is what I told him.
The first way to be charismatic is non-attachment, the way sociopaths do it. To a sociopath, other humans are meat robots with emotional handles sticking out of them ready to be grabbed. Desire, fear, shame, status-seeking, loyalty – a sociopath sees all these and other emotions clearly in others exactly to the extent that, lacking the ability to empathize with those others, he has no skin in the game. People who aren’t sociopaths can sometimes learn this kind of perception through rigorous self-awareness and mystical disciplines that teach extreme emotional detachment as a learned state.
The second way is just the opposite of non-attachment – extreme empathy for others. The empathic charismatic works his mirror neurons hard, identifying with his targets in order to motivate them by tapping into their strongest emotional currents. Externally, the behavioral signals the empathic charismatic emits to affect others may be the same as the non-attached charismatic uses, but the internal representations they use are very different. The empath isn’t merely pretending to care; his behavior is not brittle and he can’t be “found out” the way a sociopath can.
The third way to charisma is channeling. The channeler, instead of identifying with their target(s), identifies with some figure or personified idea that is emotionally powerful for the targets. In a religious context, the charismatic may evoke a saint, a previous prophet with high prestige, or a god. In a more secular context, a channeling charismatic may appear to embody the characteristic virtues of a profession, a tribe, a nation, or some other group in which the targets have a large emotional investment.
The fourth way is the call to excellence. Whatever else a would-be charismatic does or fails to do, he can succeed with one simple, powerful message: “You can be more than you are.” The charismatic who calls to excellence invites people to grow, to take charge of their lives, to attend to what is best in themselves. In some but not all versions, this becomes “You can be part of something larger than yourself.”
In practice, most charismatics use mixed strategies. I myself rely mostly on a combination of channeling with the call to excellence. While I’m not particularly deficient in empathy, I’m not enough sigmas above the mean for that mode of charisma to be more effective than the two I lean on. If I put the required effort in to alter my consciousness, I can inhabit a sociopath-like state of detached manipulation, but I find it deeply uncomfortable to remain there for long.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about these strategies is that they are not inexplicable magic, but skills that can be learned and practised and improved. The most effective way to learn them is by mimesis: studying the behavior of charismatics, imitatiting it, and putting yourself inside the behavior (allowing yourself to notice that the behavior induces a mental posture and going there, as in method acting).
That’s what I told my friend. Now, on reflection, I would add two more important tools to the charismatic’s kit: honesty and fearlessness. I speak of these as instruments rather than virtues because I am mainly concerned with their effect on the charismatic’s audience.
Most people are half-aware that they are almost constantly surrounded by a net of lies. The big lies of politics and religion; the medium-sized lies of advertising and marketing; and all the little lies of the workplace and normal social interaction. Many people constantly pretend, even to themselves, to believe things that in other and deeper parts of their minds they know aren’t true – but they dare not confront those truths because they think the social and personal costs of doing so would be higher than they can bear.
The charismatic who is honest and fearless brings a gift. By thinking unthinkables and saying unsayables and getting away with it – not being struck dead by lighting or instantly lynched – he offers his audience, too, a psychological release from the relentless tension of everyday lies. He gives them at least temporary permission to be more honest in their own thoughts.
This is extremely powerful. So much so that many people will follow a charismatic to his goal just for this. Most people who hear the old saw “Honesty is the best policy” doen’t realize that it dates from a time when the word “policy” had slightly different connotations than it does today; what the proverb meant then might be better translated as “Honesty is the most effective strategem.” Now you know why.