Help me to become disarmingly (fill in the blank)
February 10, 2009 5:29 PM   Subscribe

Some people have this mysterious ability to be - disarming. Please explain this skill and help me learn it!

Disarmingly funny, disarmingly beautiful, disarmingly friendly, disarmingly simple. What does it all mean?

The dictionary definitions of disarming (in this context) give something along the lines of "eliciting positive favor." But that begs futher explanation as far as I'm concerned. Here's a senario. The other day a woman I barely know described my personality in one short phrase. She was accurate. It was unpleasant for me to hear, even though the description would not be considered negative by most. Nevertheless, my internal reaction skipped from shock and dismay straight to utter admiration and I, a person who typically freezes up around others, suddenly wanted to spill my guts to her about anything and everything. ????? How did she do that? I suppose you'd say that she'd been "disarmingly frank."

The point: I want to learn the mechanisms behind 'social' disarmament. My goal here is NOT to trick people into liking me. Rather, I'd like to learn how to 'cut to the quick' in an ethical way. I think learning this could accomplish a lot towards creating deeper relationships with other people. Especially the ones who, like me, are pretty reserved in their interactions.

If you think you understand what's going on here, please explain. And is this a skill I can learn?
posted by kitcat to Human Relations (26 answers total) 202 users marked this as a favorite
How to read a person like a book (new window)
posted by kanemano at 5:32 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think being disarming is about showing that you like, and notice, others. The disarming people I know are always catching my eye and sharing small moments of humour, or picking up on my interests, personality, and my subtle, sometimes unintentional nonverbal communication to make me feel that we're on the same page. I feel that they "get" me, without judging me, and that I could share something of myself with them and receive acceptance and insight and playfulness in return.

Like you, I often find myself disarmed by people who observed me keenly and then reported back on what they saw in a way that didn't aim to hurt me. Sentences like "you know what I like about you?" or "you're the kind of person who XYZ", where the answers to those questions are true and not-unkind, will disarm me. Someone noticing that I thought to myself, "ha ha, that lady made a funny noise" and then catching my eye and grinning- that will disarm me. In theatre this skill is called "complicité", or "le jeu", and it means having a little fun joke and game that you share with your scene partner and/or the audience. Being in on the joke together.

It's also disarming to be honest: to complain with humour instead of pretending everything's fine; to ask who farted, metaphorically speaking, when everyone else is breathing through their mouths and smiling big fake smiles. As long as the complaints and honesty lack meanness and aggression, and especially if the complaints are humourous, short, and insightful, they will build complicité and be disarming.

I think the way to learn to be disarming is to find those moments with people. Notice what makes each of them interesting and unique, and share your observations. Notice what tickles them or peeves them, and give them the gift of sharing their joy or cracking a joke when it wanders by. Find the playfulness and absurdity in people and offer it back to them with a grin.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:41 PM on February 10, 2009 [65 favorites]

I find the people that have disarming traits tend to be confident and know themselves well. So when they are frank or funny etc. they don't really care about impressing others. That's how they are. Who wouldn't want to get to know someone that has their shit together?
posted by spec80 at 5:43 PM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Confidence, self awareness and honesty.
posted by fire&wings at 5:43 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, such wonderful answers. Please keep going...
posted by kitcat at 5:48 PM on February 10, 2009

The best way to disarm someone is to be (or appear to be) totally at ease with yourself and your world while being genuinely concerned only with the positive elements of an interaction. Then you can say or do whatever the fuck you want. Some people who are like this (or who appear to be) are born with the ability, but more commonly people are all capable of it sometimes. It's hard to teach yourself to be this way all the time, but not impossible--just learn to balance utter ruthlessness with a sincere curiosity and charity towards others' shortcomings. Cultivate the ideology that everyone is flawed, but interesting, and practice random acts of honest praise as well as skepticism. The first step is to usually go through some traumatic life-alerting loss of center so that you can reform your personality as an shark with flowers for teeth, so try that if possible In the meantime, see every encounter as a unique opportunity to learn more about what makes people tick, while crushing them gently under your blankety boots.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:49 PM on February 10, 2009 [51 favorites]

I've always taken it to mean that the person was genuine, and seemingly free from ulterior motives or hidden motivations. A person who seems to be nonjudgmental, which is in opposition to someone who is hiding their judgments, or simply being judgmental. A person who treats you as an equal, especially in the face of unequal experience. Being in the moment with someone. Someone who avoids platitudes or empty reassurances.
posted by gjc at 6:03 PM on February 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

It's not complicated. Think about the origins of the word. To "disarm" somone means to cause them to put their guard down, to trust you, to not interpret you as a threat.

All it takes is for you to be genuinely kind, always. This involves, as others have mentioned, being interested, generous and open-minded.

I don't think it's necessarily about self-confidence or self-awareness. One can be these things and still be mean, selfish or judgemental.

Regarding honesty, I think it's important to distinguish between constructive and destructive honesty. This goes back to the intentions behind everything you say: are you saying things to help or hurt someone? To entertain yourself or to facilitate mutual understanding?

Though I claim this is simple, by no means is it easy. Sometimes the simplest things things are the most difficult, because they involve real change from within, as opposed to merely tweaking external behaviour.
posted by randomstriker at 6:05 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you really want to learn to be disarming, study clown. The main guy who was all over complicité was Jacques LeCoq, and he had several disciples (listed at the bottom of that wiki). Philippe Gaulier, Sue Morrison, and Mump and Smoot are teachers I know for sure are amazing at teaching you to pay attention to how other people feel and play their game with them. All of them teach all over the world.

The type of clown I'm recommending is not at all like circus clown (annoying gag-based stuff). Rather, it's about creating complicité with the audience (like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or even Stephen Colbert type stuff). Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat) both trained with Gaulier. You can take a weekend workshop, they're challenging and fun. Here's a great article about taking a class with him.

posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:05 PM on February 10, 2009 [22 favorites]

In law school there was quite a bit of discussion about different tactics to use for this sort of thing. I paid special attention to this stuff because I worked for a disability law firm and often had to interview clients and potential clients who may have suffered some terrible tragedy - or who were mentally ill. The best tactic I was offered was to slow the cadence of my speech if I wanted the subject of the interview to share more information. If you speak quickly, often people who are disinclined to share will simply take it as a signal that you do not wish them to and they will clam up and permit you to continue speaking.

Active listening is disarming so long as you aren't doing it in that awful "synergistic" way that Corporate America wants you to, by following the ridiculous steps about repeating yourself and asking for clarification and using phrases like, "So what I hear you saying is..." That is tiresome and trite. Real active listening is more a feeling than a set of steps, and it is probably what you were experiencing. This person was present to your conversation and to the information you were giving her. She demonstrated that presence by providing good feedback.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:44 PM on February 10, 2009

I think disarming people generally just treat everyone they meet as if they're already close. In other words, they show up unarmed and you naturally feel like reciprocating.
posted by callmejay at 7:39 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

What a great question; I'll be following the answers in this thread with interest. From my experience, a "disarming" interaction is an interaction where the other person: is finely tuned into me, perceptively aware of my need, and artfully help me achieve my goal. I guess I've just paraphrased pseudostrabismus, but I think that each component can be mastered separately, then combined. Indeed, this is an art, and I rarely find people who practices it well. Mostly, they are older, and I immediately think they are wise.

1. Focus on others. This requires suppression of self-talk and concentration. Interested in others is a good motivation.

2. Situational awareness. Sometime this can be improved with prior-exposure and preparation (for example, psychologist or comedian can be very disarming because they are trained).

3. Mental agility. This requires more than being perceptive and empathetic, one must have the agility to change view point and find uncommon solution.

4. A desire to help. This requires an uncommon level of self enlightenment, genuine acceptance and compassion. This is quite an achievement in itself.

5. Communication skill. To succinctly and effectively help other with your speech alone is a great skill. Perhaps training in coaching, teaching helps.
posted by curiousZ at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm with callmejay: it's all in the word itself. "Disarmingly" means to interact with people in a way where they don't feel the need to be defensive. Not pathetic, not overbearing, just...right. It's not such a niche, though, because this is a big grey area.
posted by rhizome at 8:20 PM on February 10, 2009

In my mind, something that's connected with this is accuracy-as-honesty: The gift/skill of not exaggerating. We have plenty of models for how to blow something out of proportion, either in the positive or the negative direction; it's the standard rhetoric of politics, advertising, and entertainment*, and it has a tremendous impact when you're the only one that's doing it (or when you're doing the most of it). Unfortunately, when everybody's doing it, it very quickly becomes robotic and hollow. It depends for its power on the competition it's destroying.

The alternative is to report in proportion, to tell it like it is, to dump the pretense and the drama, to work from the double foundation of kindness and pure knowledge. When I've been blessed to meet such a person, it has been perfectly disarming. When, much more rarely, I've been blessed to act that way, I think I have been disarming too.

*Drawing some kind of clear distinction among these three is left as an exercise to the reader.
posted by eritain at 8:44 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read a lot, social sciences, history, quality novels, insightful analytical articles in magazines, journals, all over the internet... look for perspectives that you don't share or have never entertained before. Read things that surprise, delight, frustrate, and stretch you. You'll begin to appreciate difference, unpredictability...learning, growing, the unusual, and the very normal and mundane...each will begin to be fascinating to you.

As that happens, you'll begin to look more deeply at everyone you is it that they are different? Why? From what you've read you'll understand them more, but also you'll want to understand them--even more. They will fascinate. You'll know them because you know you and everyone you meet, better than you ever did before.

The library is your friend. As you open and read many books, you'll become an open book yourself...You'll find you want to know and open every person you meet just a little more than they are when you met them. You'll be fascinated. They'll be disarmed.
posted by mumstheword at 8:46 PM on February 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

A person being disarming is good at displaying appeasement signals (if you want to get technical about it).

An appeasement signal is an evolutionary trait that allows the less dominant figure to appease the aggressor so that they don't get attacked. For example, when someone commits a crime and know they are about to get arrested by cops, they put their hands up automatically. Or when a wolf lowers his head to another wolf, they essentially give in to avoid conflict.

This has evolved into something far more subtle. Now appeasement gestures can be used to instill trust in other people. Open palms, proper eye contact and tone of voice, these appeasement gestures can "disarm" people and lull them into a desirable state. Google appeasement signals, read books on human nature. I would do the work for you, but only if you provided a strong appeasement signal.
posted by pwally at 8:53 PM on February 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

I would back off a bit from the warmth aspect and note that good sales(wo)men are disarming. Basically, it involves listening carefully to cues the person is giving out and responding to those cues, perhaps before the person is even aware of their own thinking about something -- like whether to buy a car.

For instance, if a couple comes in, the salesman will figure out pretty quickly which one is the decision-maker (it's usually the woman!) and tailor responses accordingly. Did they mention a small child? Well, here's the built-in car-seat! Here's the DVD player! Does the guy seem like a music fan? Check out these woofers! And so forth.

There's an element here that can be slightly dishonest, or not: "I'm not like those other guys." Same thing if you're trying to get a phone number. The way the best pick-up lines are about making her laugh.

I remember an incident similar to your during college, when a female professor sized me up, academically, in a single phrase. We were at a party and I guess you could say I wanted to take it slightly as a come-on, which it really wasn't (uh, I think), but it was certainly disarming and I've remembered the moment for decades.
posted by dhartung at 8:53 PM on February 10, 2009

On the other hand, some people just won't be disarmed. Luke 22 ends roughly as follows:

Chief priests and scribes: Are you the Messiah? (Incriminate yourself already, we've already decided what we're gonna do with you.)
Jesus: If I tell you, you won't believe me; if I ask you, you won't answer me; nor will you let me go. (You're not interested in facts here anyway. Just in rhetoric. What kind of jurisprudence is this? Sorry, I am not participating in your fraud.)
Chief priests and scribes: Well, are you the son of God then? (Sorry, we will not be deterred.)
Jesus: Yeah. That. (Fine, do what you want.)
Chief priests and scribes: Bingo! Blasphemy! Kill him! (The one thing we cannot forgive is your refusal to play our game.)

Whether or not you believe his theological claims, Jesus had one incredible knack for cutting through people's BS, and even he could not disarm these dudes. When you cannot disarm someone, you can either say, "Okay, that happens when you share a universe with other free wills," or you can give up on disarming and try some more cynical, manipulative tactic. I've done both. I've liked myself/my life better with the accepting one. But no silver bullets here, I'm afraid.
posted by eritain at 9:05 PM on February 10, 2009

Potomac Avenue, that was fantastic. I don't believe in doing that, but.. awesome. I love this city.
posted by citron at 10:30 PM on February 10, 2009

A mix of body language-reading, pattern recognition, general intuition, and a non-threatening manner.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 10:57 PM on February 10, 2009

So many good points above that speak to the basic aspect of paying attention. I'll add the value of being aware of language used (tact) and using "audience-appropriate" words/language styles. As an example, my work has involved talking to a congressman in the morning and a professional boxer in the afternoon.

My sense was that the words used in the afternoon, how slangy I was, etc., all that was not best for the in-the-morning conversation. "He's full of sh..," vs. "It's challenging to take his view as one that's thought-through or credible."

People generally are more comfortable if they are talking to someone who figuratively speaks their language.

Too, tone in a literal sense often has a serious effect. Some people seem to naturally have accents, aspects of their speech that are more pleasing to others' ears. My great aunt had a soft, North Carolina accent that was gorgeous. Or maybe some people have learned that they can sound grating, have found a way to adjust that.
posted by ambient2 at 11:49 PM on February 10, 2009

Response by poster: Pseudostrabismus has got me thinking about techniques taught in theatrical improvisation and, particularly, when and when not to deny or block (blocking not always being a bad thing). I’m not sure but I’m guessing this would be taught in clowning.

(hope it’s not rude to post an answer to my own question. and, Potomac Avenue, yeah, that was truly awesome)

posted by kitcat at 10:01 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with callmejay and whoever mentioned encouraging a feeling of complicity. It's not really fabrication, as you need to be genuinely interested in what they have to say but the point is to consciously create those feelings of belonging, mutual trust and alliance between you and the other person.

If you're in a group that you've never met, observe for a few minutes and try to pick up on the power dynamics or social cues given by the other members. For example, did you notice that PersonA became antsy when PersonB talked about PoliticianX? Try sidling up to PersonB later and mention that you were curious as to his thoughts on PoliticianX. He may be surprised that you noticed at all, much less thought to bring it up later. He will be disarmed! And willing to talk about himself, since you've indicated you're willing to hear him out.

Read some articles by social psychologists. Bonus: they're almost always written by funny people who are socially adept and not stuffy academics.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:09 AM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

I find it disarming when people show without fear where they are vulnerable. When people tell me in a public way what their weaknesses are, without acting very afraid or nervous, I want to help, and I respect them for their courage and honesty, and I feel comfortable sharing my own fears and struggles.
posted by salvia at 6:41 PM on February 11, 2009

Reading this thread makes me think of my nine-year-old son with Asperger's, and how he will not be able to employ many of these skills. This makes me sad, but I wanted to point out that a portion of disarmability might be hard wired.
posted by mecran01 at 8:13 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have since been contacted via PM and told that many aspies can acquire disarmability.
posted by mecran01 at 11:23 AM on February 23, 2009

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