Some of us are charismatic. Some of us just aren’t. For a long time, charisma has seemed like a magical gift that only a lucky few were given – but research is now showing that charisma is something that we can learn, and that meditation has a lot to teach us.
Charisma has little to do with how we look – we’ve all known people who are good-looking, but not charismatic, and other people who are charismatic but not good-looking. It’s a matter of behavior. In The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, author Olivia Fox Cabane identifies charismatic behavior as consisting of three essential components: presence, warmth, and power. We express these through our body language, and it’s remarkably difficult to fake them. But the good news is that we can learn to influence our mental state in a positive direction, and our body language naturally follows suit. We too can have charisma.
When we’re talking with someone who isn’t present, we can feel disregarded and resentful, as if that person feels something else is more important than their current interaction with us. And if we’re the one who’s distracted, they feel the same.
The mind of the average person wanders almost fifty percent of the time. It’s difficult to be fully present, and even small improvements can have a big effect on those around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation trains us to focus on the present moment, regardless of whether we’re alone or with someone else – and when we are truly present with someone else, that person can feel our attention. They feel heard, respected, and valued. An added plus is that learning to be more in tune with the present moment also helps us to be happier – the more our minds wander, the more unhappy we are likely to be.
The next time you’re speaking with someone, try this exercise from Cabane: feel your toes. Even though I practice meditation regularly, I still get distracted during interpersonal exchanges! Feeling my toes, or the soles of my feet, is a quick fix that gets me right back into my physical body in the present moment, and really helps the other person feel that I’m on the ground with them instead of lost in my head.
The next component of charisma is warmth. Someone who projects attentiveness and a desire for our happiness and success is someone who is attractive, even magnetic. We want people to like us and wish us well – and the best way to project through body language that we like someone and wish them well is to practice actually doing just that. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation is the Buddhist practice of generating and sending compassion – good wishes for yourself and others. In A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, author Thupten Jinpa walks the reader through the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training course, a program that teaches us how to be more compassionate in everyday life. Sometimes, we fear that being more compassionate means weakness, but compassion doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves. In fact, it means we can do so more effectively and with greater ease.
Cabane shares this exercise: imagine the people around you have angel wings. Smile and silently send them good wishes. When I tried this, I found myself smiling constantly. People seemed nicer, not because they were different, but because I was seeing them differently. And many more people smiled in return.
Power is the third element of charisma. Power means different things to different people, but it boils down to being able to influence the world around us. It can mean physical strength, social status, wealth, intelligence, expertise, or authority. It can be hard to tell whether someone really is powerful, so people will tend to accept whatever your body language projects.
Because meditation can help us feel more grounded – projecting a sense of ease, confidence, and stability – both mindfulness meditation and metta meditation can increase our sense of power. In addition, anything that helps us realize the potential of our physical body, whether that’s yoga or long walks or weight training, will increase the confidence with which we move. While I’m only 5’5, simply getting stronger made it so that I no longer felt short around others taller than me. This shows up in my body language and posture, and people notice.
One of the biggest obstacles to projecting power is the discomfort we feel around uncertainty. Cabane recommends the following visualization: Take several deep breaths, imagining the clean air rinsing away all your concerns. Imagine lifting the weight of everything you are concerned about from your own shoulders, and putting it on the shoulders of a benevolent entity or force – God, the Universe, Life, or anything else that works with your beliefs. Explore the idea of becoming comfortable within the uncertainty, letting go of the need to have an immediate answer.
Putting it Together
According to the research, charisma is the ability to project presence, warmth, and power through our body language and sincere attentiveness. While different people will have different degrees of each, all three elements are necessary. By practicing these mental states, our body language will automatically change to match them and we will be able to project more charisma than we knew we had.