Got the Spark?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Dashing Dweebs

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

If Cindy Samuelson had cared to see them, there were certainly hints she had a charisma deficit. Her marriage was collapsing due to her overbearing ways. And one of her colleagues advised her to "drop dead" in front of the entire sales and marketing crew, then refused to speak to her for 18 months.

"I was so demanding and domineering that I was alienating everyone," says Samuelson, a of Phoenix.

Not so long ago, we might have said there was little hope for someone like Samuelson. Oh sure, she might be able to sand the roughest edges. But it didn't seem like she'd ever possess the sort of sparkling charisma that inspires adoration. Most of us would assume that folks are simply blessed at birth with that mysterious quality.

In fact, that's not necessarily true. A small contingent of researchers and motivational experts now insist there's nothing so magical about charisma after all.

Dweebs Can Be Dashing

Howard Friedman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California in Riverside, teaches the art of personal magnetism to anyone interested through his one- to three-day Learn Charisma seminars.

"Even dweebs can learn to be dashing," says Tony Alessandra, PhD, author of Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism That Leads to Success. "I want people to understand charisma is within their grasp. They just have to understand the elements of charisma and start working on the ones they're deficient in."

What are those elements? People with charisma listen attentively, these experts say. They are expressive and warm, while still honoring other people's boundaries. All this can be learned, they insist. And it's an extremely useful quality these days, because charisma equals power.

Presidential candidates, for example, are chosen more than ever before on the basis of charisma. "Voters don't have time to do a lot of policy analysis, and so one of the ways they make a quick decision is to look at the packaging," says Alessandra.

The Power of Charisma

In the past, people wielded power according to the positions they held. Nowadays, we yield less to hierarchical power and more to personality. "These skills give you power without taking power away from other people," Alessandra says. "That's the beauty of charisma."

While experts agree charisma is valuable, they don't quite converge on a definition. The word originally meant "a divine gift" and was reserved for religious figures. In modern days, the word often means different things to different people, but everyone recognizes charisma when they see it.

Charismatic people share some of the same traits as extroverts. But then there are introverted charismatic types, such as Tiger Woods, and mesmerizing folk who are not conventionally beautiful -- think of Rosie O'Donnell. Alessandra defines charisma as "an irresistible personality force."

Learning to Express Yourself

In another take on the topic, U.C. Riverside's Friedman says the essence of charisma is the ability to clearly show what you are feeling via nonverbal cues: gestures, facial expression, body movements, and voice modulation.

Friedman, who has conducted research in nonverbal expression for more than 20 years, says we are drawn to people who are easy to read, and the way we read people is by gauging their expressions and gestures. A stone-faced person -- for instance, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher -- makes us uneasy because we don't know what he or she is thinking.

On the other hand, charismatic figures such as former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Colin Powell waggle their fingers freely and exercise many of the 240 muscles in their faces when they're speaking. Friedman's studies have shown that, upon first meeting, we judge people as much by these nonverbal cues as by their physical appearance.

Like actors, Friedman's charisma-impaired students study how to configure their facial muscles to convey sadness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, seduction, and happiness. The difference is, these students want to express their true emotions. (Most sign up for class hoping to gain an edge in business or romance.)

Once they learn these building blocks, students practice by holding hand mirrors inches from their faces as they try to conjure authentic-looking emotions. To appear surprised, for instance, they practice dropping their jaws, parting their teeth and raising their eyebrows.

Some trainees even tote around facial expression "cheat sheets," so they can work on making their faces mirror their feelings. "I feel more confident now," says Suzy Babko, a graduate of charisma class. "This program isn't going to make everyone as charismatic as the president, but still I'd recommend it to anybody."

Listening Attentively

Charisma coach Tony Alessandra bases his program less on the kind of "face work" Babko practices and more on developing qualities of consideration and sensitivity.

"Charisma is really the ability to influence others by connecting with them," he says. "It's a people skill. It's a relationship skill." His seminars emphasize attentive listening, honoring other people's space and time demands, and similar do-unto-others attributes.

Alessandra came to his approach through personal setbacks. As a young man, he was frequently told he oozed charm. "Although I entertained people, I didn't really connect with them," he says. "Think of the word magnetism. A magnet draws things and holds them. Well, I drew people to me -- and lost them -- until I understood the less-obvious qualities of real charisma."

Alessandra was motivated to study charisma when, in his 20s, he lost several important friendships because he had all the flash but little of the empathy of the truly charming.

Similarly, Cindy Samuelson embarked on a charisma regimen when she recognized the devastation she was wreaking in her personal and professional life. The first step was understanding that her fierce drive to overcome childhood poverty had turned her into a tyrant and a manipulator. All that mattered was success, not other people.

"By devouring Tony Alessandra's books, I learned to become literate at reading people and their emotions," says Samuelson, who now owns her own network marketing business. "I had to learn to be good to people and to put their needs before my own. In that sense, I believe charisma can really be cultivated."

Today, Samuelson's marriage, work, and relationships are all in such fine shape that she's able to laugh when describing her earlier obnoxious self. "It's funny because now I can't relate to that domineering person at all," she says.

Originally published Oct. 23, 2000
Updated Dec. 21, 2001

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