12/9/13 - compelling people

In today's selection -- from Compelling People by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. When we assess the character of others, and when others assess our character, that judgment is based primarily on two factors -- strength and warmth:

"When people size you up, what are they looking for? ...

"It turns out that when we decide how we feel about someone, we are making not one judgment, but two. The criteria that count are what we call "strength" and "warmth." Strength is a person's capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them.

"So we warm to warm people but dislike cold ones. We take seemingly strong people seriously but often disregard those who seem weak and inconsequential. People who project both strength and warmth impress us as knowing what they are doing and having our best interests at heart, so we trust them and find them persuasive. They seem willing (warm) and able (strong) to look out for our interests, so we look to them for leadership and feel comfortable knowing they are in charge. Strength and warmth are the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge.

"Once you grasp this insight, it opens up a whole new window on the human experience. You can understand why a person is appealing by looking closely at how they project strength and warmth. Or, if a person is not so appealing, you can see what makes them seem cold or weak. The waitress's sweet talk projects warmth, while her level gaze suggests she does not put up with nonsense. The boss's awkward posture projects insecurity and undercuts his employees' respect for him. The customer service rep projects warmth by sympathizing with the caller, saying that the snafu must have been aggravating -- but then expresses confusion about the problem, projecting weakness and losing the caller's confidence. Like a cost-benefit analysis or a pros-and-cons list, the strength + warmth lens reveals something fundamental about our experience.

"Knowing that strength and warmth matter is one thing, but when it comes to ourselves, acting on that insight turns out to be tricky. Any time we are in the presence of others, we are communicating, sending social signals, even when the message is just "This is who I am." We project strength and warmth using many different signals, including ones we never think about. Most of us generally have only a dim understanding of the signals we are sending. In fact, a stranger who spends just a few minutes in your presence usually walks away with a much clearer sense of the impression you make on people than you have yourself.

"But understanding the signals you send is not the biggest challenge.

"The trickiest thing about strength and warmth is that it is very hard to project both at once. This is because strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character -- wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary -- tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth -- smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favors -- can leave us seeming more submissive than strong."


John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut


Compelling People


Hudson Street


Copyright 2013 by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut


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