If you meet someone at a cocktail party whose eyes are constantly flitting around the room, do they make a good impression? Do they appear magnetic or charming? Probably not. Their mind is clearly somewhere else—maybe trying to figure out if there is someone in the room who is more important than you. They are not focusing on the conversation, and they may glance at (or even focus on) their mobile devices. Are you likely to want to speak to them again?
Chances are you will not. No one is interested in talking to someone who is not present. Worse yet is if they are not present and they are focused on technology. One research study showed that the mere presence of a cell phone impaired the sense of connection in a face-to-face conversation.
However, if you meet someone who is completely attentive to you and actively engaged in the conversation, you are much more likely to find them likable and interesting. If that person’s cell phone rings without them checking it, they get double brownie points. Why? Because in that moment, the only thing that seems to matter to them is you. You are the most important person there, and they have gifted you all of their attention at that moment.
A charismatic person is able to exert significant influence because they connect with others in meaningful ways. It’s no surprise that highly charismatic people—US presidents are a frequent example—are often described as having the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person in the room. Given how rare it is to receive that kind of attention from anyone, the ability to be fully present makes a big impression.
We often think of charisma as a special gift—the je ne sais quoi that makes someone starlike. Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are . . . not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”
While research on charisma is still in development, one of the most extensive studies on charisma found that charisma is not so much a gift as a learnable skill that has a lot to do with the ability to be fully present. The study pointed to six elements of a charismatic person:
1. Empathy: the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and to understand how that person is feeling. You can only be empathic and place yourself in another person’s shoes if you are fully attentive to them—which you are obviously only able to do if you are completely present with them.
2. Good listening skills: the ability to truly hear what someone is trying to communicate to you, both verbally and nonverbally. Think of the person at the conference social hour who interrupts you or can’t wait to interject her two cents. She is not truly listening to you because she’s thinking about herself—what she will say, how smart she will sound, how impressed you will be. If you are distracted or thinking about what to say next—not truly present—you are not truly listening.
3. Eye contact: the ability to meet and maintain someone’s gaze. Eye contact is one of the most powerful forms of human connection. We intuitively feel that when someone’s gaze shifts away from us, their attention has also shifted away from us. And this intuition is backed up by neuroscience research, which has found that the same brain regions are used when your gaze wanders as when your mind wanders. When you are present and looking someone in the eye, the impact of that connection can be powerful. In addition to feeling heard, because of your empathy and good listening skills, people actually feel seen.
4. Enthusiasm: the ability to uplift another person through praise of their actions or ideas. Enthusiasm is difficult to fake because it is such an authentic emotion. It can only occur when you sincerely engage with what someone else is doing or saying. For your enthusiasm to come across powerfully, you have to sincerely feel it. Again, your ability to be fully present and engaged is essential.
5. Self-confidence: the ability to act authentically and with assurance without worrying about what other people think. Many people are so busy worrying about how they appear that they end up coming across as nervous or inauthentic. Their focus is on themselves rather than on the other person. When you are fully present, you are focused on others rather than yourself. As a consequence, you naturally come across as confident: instead of worrying about what others are thinking of you, you are composed, genuine, and natural.
6. Skillful speaking: the ability to profoundly connect with others. It is essential to know your audience if you want to make an impact. The only way to do so, however, is to tune in to them. When you are one hundred percent present with your audience, you are able to understand where they are coming from and how they are interpreting your words. Only then can your words be sensitive and appropriate. When you speak skillfully, you will be truly heard.
Charisma, simply put, is absolute presence.
While constantly focusing on the next thing or the next person may seem productive, slowing down and being present has far more profound benefits. By being present, you will enter a state of flow that is highly productive and will become more charismatic, making people around you feel understood and supported. You will have good relationships, which are one of the biggest predictors of success and happiness.
This is an excerpt from The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright ©2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.