The Charisma of Happiness: The Happiness of Charisma
Saturday, July 9, 2016
While reading a new book, The Happiness Track, by Emma Seppalla, PhD, I came upon some unexpected material about the qualities of charismatic people. Not only was her description of charismatic people different than my associations with how that quality gets expressed, but so was her description of charismatic people surprising in that it related so well to what we therapists do with our clients.
My default assumptions about charisma had more to do with glamor, fame, a patina of great importance, perhaps a peacock-ishness, than about presence per se. And being intensely present turns out to stand as the highlight of charisma, according to Seppalla.
Much to my surprise, research psychologist Seppalla, and the study from which she drew, by Robert J. House and associates, consider the most important characteristics of charisma to include presence, attentiveness, and enthusiasm. These qualities hail from genuine interest or curiosity, and an impeccable ability to invest wholly in a moment of interaction.
Seppalla writes, “A charismatic person is able to exert significant influence because he or she connects with others in meaningful ways. It’s no surprise that highly charismatic people. . .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.” Seppalla says that nascent research on charisma found it more a learnable skill than a “gift” or trait.
The study she mentions (Robert J. House, ‘Personality and Charisma in the US Presidency’, 1991) points to 6 elements:
2) Good listening skills
3) Eye contact (attention and gaze go together in our experience)
4) Enthusiasm (including encouragement, admiration, and validation of another person)
5) Self-confidence—being oneself authentically without self-consciousness or worry about how one is coming across or what others think.
6) Skillful speaking—use language that connects with another; clear, sensitive, but does not talk down.
“Charisma, simply put, is absolute presence.” (Seppalla, pg 32)
I could not help but think about the similarities between charismatic people, and people in service industries like mine—psychotherapy. What any person, practiced in mine or another service profession, might add to the list would include a ‘wetware’ data base of diagnostic/analytical/anecdotal information, and the kind of mastery that comes from ten years or more of experience. The skill sets and education in any field lie ready to access, almost incidentally, during the interactive process, when one is a master. Mastery requires a depth of understanding and utility within a field that is highly nuanced and detailed.
When you use your charisma–which means we all have some capacity for it–we have, according to this research, honed our ability to pay close attention to another human being. And when engaged at that intensity, we find ourselves more interested. Engagement, or investment of one’s energy enhances our own experience, even as we are providing a more empathic experience to the person on the other end of our interaction. We feel happier when we feel more engaged. We enjoy our charisma, as does the other person receiving our undivided attunement and the gift of our undivided energy.
Interest and mastery go hand in hand. To develop one’s ability in any field, as well as to continue to feel in love with it, requires ongoing scrutiny and exploration of successively finer levels of knowledge and skill. If, like a therapist, you fall in love with what makes people tick, and how people make positive changes in ways of thinking, acting and feeling, then that interest grows in daily interactions where more subtle and intricate observations serve as sources of constant feedback toward refinement in motivational, palliative or empowering interactions.
Unasked for gifts sometimes arrive, such as when Angelica said to me, “I know you are busy, but you make me feel like I’m your only client.” Or, Bob expressing with a sigh, “You nailed it!” when I simply played back the fear and frustration he felt when unable to get through to his wife. Even when my “nails” are off their mark, by listening to my client suggest where they might be, I receive the gift of greater attunement and understanding, and so does my client! This mutual feedback loop moves both of us into greater synchrony. And greater presence. Presence itself is highly influential. On an energetic level, when I am fully engaged and present, I feel calm and that calm energy radiates to my client(s). When fully present, I do not feel taxed by self-consciousness because my focus is on the recipient of my interest and positive curiosity. The appearance of that includes self-confidence; just a simple expression of being all right as oneself; as a helpful human being.
We can learn to listen better. When working with couples, therapists often offer some coaching in how to listen: lower defenses, wear your curiosity hat, reiterate what you heard, validate the other person’s feelings and show empathy for their concerns, their pain, their suffering. Ask good questions to flesh out your understanding of how the other person arrived at their point of view and their feelings. And only when you have nourished all your attention on the speaker, and they feel satisfied in being heard, would you change roles, if appropriate. In the process we learn more about each other. Our “emotional IQ” develops. We learn more about how to contribute to our partner’s happiness than before. We learn with what language we make connection and what creates an experience of disconnect in our tone of voice.
Guest saddle: When do you show up “with bells?” In what situations or with whom would you like to show up more engaged, more alive, and more involved? When and where do you find yourself most present? Where and when do you experience your energy as most divided? When do you notice others being drawn to your “charisma?”