I have an embarrassing habit. I read self improvement books. Vanessa Van Edwards writes self improvement books ; actually she researches human behaviour and is an effective science communicator. She caught my eye when I was looking for short videos on leadership. Somehow I got looking at charisma and if we can learn it. The video below says yes. And a critical step is asking questions. I had to follow that up. So…
I’ve been reading her book, Captivate; The Science of Succeeding with People (2017). It’s like a supersized and updated “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnegies classic. I’ve learned many things and have actively worked with the ideas. It’s a great book.
First up readers are encouraged to ask questions. That’s a favourite of mine anyway. As a child I thought it polite, be silent, don’t ask questions, that’s nosy. Now I find, I’m curious and that’s OK. People love to talk about themselves and interested questioning is a key people skill. So ask novel questions. When we leave the common conversation questions behind and use novel thoughtful questions, what Vanessa describes as, “sparky” questions, we jolt our conversations into the new. It’s much more fun, for everyone. Questions like: “What was the highlight of your day?” Or “What is a personal passion project you’re working on?” Or, “Have you anything exciting coming up in your life?” Questions like this excite us. I’ve been doing this; it works, although I have occasionally received odd looks from my question. But it is worth it, for the positive responses.
It’s fascinating to develop an interest in people and you will always have a conversation. What’s more it is fun.
Another fascinating topic your personality and that of your friends. The more we understand our friends the more fun. Vanessa introduces the Big 5 model (OCEAN) a scientifically developed personality model used surprisingly often. Meyers’ Briggs is not used here because that model is not based on sensible science just the ramblings of two amateurs from Jung’s dodgy ideas. The acronym, OCEAN, is for: openness to experience, contentiousness, extraversion, acceptance and neuroticism. Neuroticism is just a fancy word for tendency to worry. Vanessa suggests taking a test for your personality and using that as a starting point. I was fascinated to find that I am much less accepting than I thought I would be… maybe I’m growing into a grumpy old man. She then suggests ways of assessing your friends and workmates (Bosses!), making relationships smoother. Useful material.
That brings me back to my initial comment, I’m into self improvement. One suggested way of identifying high neuroticism people, like me, is to look for positive quotes on their desks or around their homes. That is me. That’s healthy. Michael Shermer of Sceptic fame disagrees. He calls the self-improvement business a scam. Actually, he cites a journalist named Steve Salerano’s book Sham: How the self-Help movement made America Helpless (Crown 2006). Now he has a point there’s money to be made and I find Tom Robbins a bit odd (much of the self-help industry looks pretty dodgy new age religiosity) but positive psychology is evidence based and useful. So I would say use the good and avoid the crazy. And remember this Shermer’s and Salerano’s point is that you read a book, do the exercises and after a week or two start again. They think that’s a scam. I see their point but for worriers to surround themselves with positive and encouraging quotes, to read the books and do the exercises, that’s just sensible self-maintenance. Like exercising, sleeping and eating well. And it’s cheaper and less destructive than booze.
Then Vanessa introduces the idea of becoming story tellers. Now I’m fascinated by this. Stories are in our genes. As social creatures, stories have taught and guided us forever. We remember childhood and we remember campfires from our pasts. Vanessa suggest a systematic approach; remember and practice stories from your life in what she calls a “story stack”. Use those stories when starting a conversation and then throw a boomerang; that is, ask a question to bring your audience into the conversation. That’s a great idea. An example; in this last week, I scared myself badly. The story was, I bike home down a hill on a busy road. Trucks and cars close around me. In New Zealand we don’t have (many) separated bike lanes, so I’m in traffic. Then, I hit a rock, my tire deflated and I scrambled to keep upright in control, with traffic around me. Scary, bloody terrifying! I boomeranged that and heard all sorts of horror stories. No-one was hit but everyone had a story to tell. Vanessa’s point is this can be learned. And we all can learn.
There is much more. Vanessa writes fourteen chapters, each one with what she describes a practical approach to improving a specific social skill. She is an authority on this as she describes herself as a, “recovering awkward person”; actually she comes across in her videos and books as quite the opposite, skilled with people and confident. I recommend her book to you. Buy it, practice the exercises and learn the skills. Grow.