How to Be More Charismatic and Still Be Yourself

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to know how to be more charismatic? Is charisma a natural talent or can anyone develop it?

Many people think that charisma is something you either have or you don’t. However, Olivia Fox Cabane dispels that myth in her book The Charisma Myth and posits that charisma is a quality that can be learned and developed. She says that the first step to becoming more charismatic is to mastering your mind and emotional state.

Here’s how to master your mind.

Master Your Mind

If you want to know how to be more charismatic, Cabane states that the first step is to master your mind and learn to direct your emotional state on command. She argues that by practicing the right mental habits, you can authentically summon the components of charisma—mindfulness, authority, and goodwill—whenever you need them.

According to Cabane, the reason that this type of emotional intelligence is so important is that you can’t fake the components of charisma. Humans are incredibly good at perceiving others’ true emotions, particularly by observing body language. When others scan you for mindfulness, authority, and goodwill, they learn far more from your unconscious body language than anything else. If your demeanor contradicts the way you claim to feel, they’ll be able to detect it.

Cabane argues that you can’t circumvent this incongruence by directly controlling every aspect of your body language—there are too many parts of your body moving and reacting all the time. Instead, she insists that the most effective way to project authority and goodwill is to actually feel like you have authority and care about others. If these components of charisma are real to you (and you’re able to summon them on demand), they’ll be real to others, because they’ll naturally and authentically show in your body language.

Are People Really This Transparent?

In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges Cabane’s idea that humans are naturally gifted at reading one another’s true emotions. Gladwell argues that we’re far more likely to misread each other than we assume—we imagine that others’ body language is an accurate representation of their emotional state, but the evidence shows that this isn’t always the case.

Gladwell cites one psychological study that asked participants to judge whether real people were lying or telling the truth about cheating on a quiz. Around half of the liars and truth-tellers behaved in a way that made people misjudge them 80% of the time. This group not only included talented liars, but also innocent people whose body language and overall demeanor made them seem guilty. 

Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean that cultivating a charismatic mindset (as Cabane suggests) would be a waste of time. Keep in mind, Gladwell’s study was centered around a single interaction. If you intend to form long-term relationships with other people, they’ll be far more likely than Gladwell’s test subjects to eventually detect your true feelings. Additionally, learning to genuinely create a positive mindset will be less work in the long run than constantly wearing an emotional mask around others.

Now, we’re going to discuss three of Cabane’s specific strategies to help you master your mind and emotions:

  • Reframe your negative thoughts in a positive light
  • Practice mindfulness and compassion for yourself and others
  • Make a habit of confident body language

Reframe Negative Thoughts

The primary strategy Cabane offers to achieve a positive state of mind is known in psychology as “cognitive reappraisal”—changing how you feel about something by seeing it from a different point of view. Cabane asserts that positively reframing your thoughts is an effective way to combat destructive emotions because these emotions are themselves caused by negatively distorted thoughts

Research shows us that the human brain suffers from a powerful “negativity bias.” Cabane states that we tend to interpret the world around us as far more dangerous than it really is, ignoring the good things in our life and dwelling on the bad. This tendency to see danger where it doesn’t exist keeps us cautious and alert but prevents us from entering a relaxed, charismatic state of mind.

Cabane explains how to practice cognitive reappraisal: Whenever you find yourself getting drawn into anxious, negative thoughts, make a list of all the potential upsides of a terrible situation, no matter how unrealistic they seem. Just crashed your car? Maybe this was a necessary lesson in personal responsibility. Or maybe you’re destined to meet the love of your life at the auto repair shop. The act of focusing your attention on the positives of your situation helps your brain downplay the negatives.

One powerful tool to aid your cognitive reappraisal is visualization. Cabane states that the brain often mistakes imagination for reality. Therefore, visualizing the possible upsides of your situation impacts your emotions as if they’re really happening.

Cabane urges you to use visualization whenever you’re in an unproductive state of mind. For example, if you need a boost of confidence, remember a proud moment or visualize yourself succeeding in vivid sensory detail. When you’re feeling anxious, simply imagining that you’re receiving a long hug triggers comforting neurochemicals in your brain.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Reframes Negative Thoughts

Cabane’s strategy of reframing negative thoughts has support in the field of psychology. The popular branch of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or “CBT,” is also built on the idea of cognitive reappraisal. In CBT, the patient and therapist work together to identify the patient’s harmful inaccurate perceptions of reality, reframe them into more positive and realistic beliefs, and build habits of responding to negative emotions in healthy ways.

Psychiatrist David Burns was one of the leading public figures who popularized CBT in the 1980s. In Feeling Great, Burns explains that people who suffer from anxiety and depression experience similar types of distorted negative thoughts. For example, they overgeneralize, telling themselves that because they did one thing wrong, they are “bad people” doomed to make things worse for the rest of their lives. Or, they “discount the positive,” devaluing their successes and claiming that they don’t really count. Burns explains that these negative thoughts are disconnected from reality, proving that thinking positively about your situation (as Cabane suggests) is often less delusional than implicitly believing your initial perceptions.

Although he doesn’t rely as much on using visualization as Cabane does, Burns does assert that the right imaginative exercises are extremely helpful in conquering negative states of mind. One of his most effective exercises is called the “Double Standard Technique.” Instead of judging yourself, imagine that you’re offering support to a friend of yours who’s in the exact same situation as you. Often, this simple shift in mindset helps people realize that they’re holding themselves to an unrealistic standard.

Some readers find Cabane’s faith in positive thinking to be unrealistically optimistic, but the proven effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy lends credibility to her methods. Meta-analysis of over a hundred independent studies has found that cognitive behavioral therapy is strongly supported by the available evidence, especially in treating anxiety disorders, stress disorders, bulimia, and problems with anger control.

Practice Mindfulness and Compassion

Cabane’s next strategy to help you master your emotional state is to intentionally practice mindfulness and compassion. As we’ve discussed, learning to generate genuine mindfulness and goodwill helps you effortlessly display charismatic behavior and body language. 

The basic technique of mindfulness is to focus on specific sensations in the body to keep your mind from wandering. For example, if you’re in the middle of a conversation, briefly focusing on the sensation of your breath will gently halt your train of thought, allowing you to give your conversation partner your full attention. Cabane insists that this becomes easier with practice.

(Shortform note: Although Cabane doesn’t explicitly make the suggestion, intentionally practicing meditation every day may help you become more mindful and thus more charismatic. According to Buddhist monk Bhante Gunaratana, the ultimate goal of meditation practice is to cultivate mindfulness. Meditation can involve simply carving out 10-20 minutes a day to sit without distractions while employing Cabane’s technique of focusing on sensations in the body.)

Once you’ve executed this mindfulness technique and your attention is resting fully in the present, you can focus on generating charismatic goodwill for those around you. Cabane argues that to project goodwill, you not only need to care for others but also personally relate to how they feel. This combination of love and understanding is compassion.

Cabane asserts that even if you don’t consider yourself a caring person, we all have the capacity to feel true compassion: It just takes practice. Visualization comes in handy here. If you’re struggling to empathize with someone, imagine what life would be like as this person in as much vivid detail as you can muster. Alternatively, try focusing on any little thing you appreciate or respect about them. Cabane states that you find what you look for—the simple act of thinking positively about someone often generates good feelings toward them.

Cabane also emphasizes the importance of self-compassion. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that negative emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. Acknowledging that everyone on earth has gone through the same kind of struggles can help alleviate the shame that prevents you from connecting with others.

Charisma Through Radical Acceptance

Cabane admits that she draws many of these ideas on compassion and how to cultivate it from the work of psychologist and meditation specialist Tara Brach—specifically Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. Like Cabane, Brach argues that mindfulness and compassion are necessary to fully connect with others.

Brach advocates for a meditative practice called “Radical Acceptance” intended to alleviate internal suffering. It’s a two-part process that involves both mindfulness and compassion—first, you recognize the emotions and sensations you’re feeling, and second, you offer yourself compassion, wishing yourself well instead of resenting yourself for not being good enough.

Brach asserts that the best way to connect with those around you is to give them this same gift of Radical Acceptance. First, lend a mindful ear and make sure you understand how they feel. Then, offer unconditional care and compassion, wishing them well and thinking positively about them. 

Brach argues that, in this way, you should use Radical Acceptance to embrace the pain of others as if it were your own. Try to intentionally recognize the fact that human struggles are universal and that consequently, they’re nothing to be ashamed of. You won’t have trouble feeling genuine compassion for others if you wholeheartedly believe that you are fundamentally the same as them—their painful circumstances could have just as easily been yours.

This practice of Radical Acceptance towards others isn’t “charisma” as we typically think of it. However, if you regularly offer people this kind of love, Brach argues that they’re more likely to feel love toward you. They’ll trust you and want to be around you—in Cabane’s eyes, this is charisma.

Use the Body to Help the Mind

Cabane’s final strategy to create a positive, charismatic mindset is to intentionally adjust your body language. While we’ve established that your mental state determines your body language, Cabane asserts that this process can also work in reverse. By consciously making a habit of using confident body language, like standing tall and expanding your chest, you’ll genuinely feel more confident. These confident feelings in turn make this body language feel more natural, creating a positive feedback loop.

Cabane notes that this strategy works in the short term, too. When you’re preparing for key moments where you’ll need as much charisma as possible, take a minute to create your desired confident, charismatic emotional state with your body.

The “Power Posing” Debate

Cabane’s assertion that confident body language has the power to create genuine feelings of confidence has been the subject of major controversy in the field of psychology for the last decade.

The second–most-viewed TED talk of all time discusses this topic: 2012’s “Your body language may shape who you are” by psychologist Amy Cuddy. Cuddy advocates for “power posing,” claiming that if you strike a dominant, expansive pose for just two minutes, you’ll feel more powerful, take more risks, and experience significant hormonal changes that reflect increased confidence.

The technique exploded in popularity, earning Cuddy lucrative speaking gigs and a bestselling book in 2015. However, Cuddy received severe backlash after further studies failed to replicate her findings. Cuddy was all but ostracized from the field of psychology and ended up leaving her tenure-track position at Harvard Business School in 2017 in the wake of what she called “relentless abuse.”

The most recent findings on power posing, drawn from meta-analyses of dozens of studies on the subject, indicate that expansive, confident body language does evoke feelings of power. However, it doesn’t seem to increase risk tolerance or cause hormonal changes, as Cuddy initially claimed. Additionally, avoiding hunched, insecure body language appears to impact your confidence far more than the addition of special power poses.
How to Be More Charismatic and Still Be Yourself

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Charisma Myth summary :

  • How charisma is a set of habits and behaviors that anyone can learn
  • How to become a magnetic presence wherever you go
  • Why it’s more important to be a charismatic listener than a charismatic speaker

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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