Finding my way with others
October 4, 2007 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Some people seem to have a 'way' about them of gaining the willing cooperation of those around them. I seem to have none of that 'way' at all and I'd like to see if I could gain a little of it. All too often I feel overrun by others and cannot seem to get a balanced amount of cooperation and respect. I guess this is about social status and how to rise a bit above my low rung on the ladder.

I'm assuming a good bit of what I'm looking for falls into that ineffable domain of subtle body language, tone of voice, and such. Is there some way of learning these things in a class or other safe setting? I'm not really looking for leadership roles or anything like that, just that subtle something, whatever it is, that might make social operations run a bit more smoothly and successfully for me at work and at home and in other casual situations. Thanks for any tips you can offer.
posted by DarkForest to Human Relations (29 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
confidence, which comes from self-respect. everything flows from that. the 'way' that some people have is that they don't care what others think of them.
posted by mpls2 at 7:28 PM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if anyone reading this is a co-sufferer of this syndrome, even if you don't have an answer, I'd be interested in hearing how you live and/or make peace with the problem. Thanks.
posted by DarkForest at 7:30 PM on October 4, 2007

Metafilter meetups.

No, seriously. It's a small group, actively looking to meet new people with none of the hangups of traditionally dating-oriented "meet new people" scenes, there's built-in smalltalk material and let's be honest, both ends of the social eptitude spectrum will be represented.
posted by Skorgu at 7:37 PM on October 4, 2007

There are a couple of guys in my office who a type that you would think would put them low on the ladder -- shy, uncomfortable speaking up at a meeting, etc. -- who are loved and respected by everyone. Why? Because they're awesome. They work hard, they give you credit where it's due, they are genuinely thankful when helped, they provide reasonable deadlines and remind you when something's due, they don't gossip, they take the high road, they follow your deadlines, they'd love to take an hour to brainstorm an idea for the greater good. These two guys both quietly won over everyone who really does the work in my office one person at a time by having the best work ethic in the office.

Not everyone can pull this off. But even though I'm more outgoing than they are, I am humble enough to have seen that you can go out of your way to be an awesome colleague without being a doormat but also without being the star of the show.
posted by desuetude at 7:39 PM on October 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

Are you a man? The men I notice to generally be socially powerful tend to have, as you say, fairly specific body language behaviors: wide, open stance, head up, steady eye contact, not making way for people much, movements that tend more toward slow and measured than quick and darting.

This is going to sound very odd, but I've been reading Self-Made Man, and the author visits some kind of manliness coach early on, and if I recall correctly, it's a person - perhaps an acting coach? - who specializes in teaching transmen and drag kinds how to walk and talk like dudes. Perhaps there's someone like that near you?
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:42 PM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Argh. Drag kings, sorry.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:42 PM on October 4, 2007

I'm a professional cat herder, so I think I am qualified to answer this question.

You might need to be a little more clear. What kind of cooperation are you looking for? Perhaps the old adage sums it up best: the Lord helps those who help themselves. If it's a matter of "getting" the secretary to help you find the blue ball point pens in the supply closet, or the legal paper for the copier, find this stuff yourself. It's almost better to never ask for help. If it's a matter of "getting" someone to tell you a phone number, Google it yourself.

You might be surprised: most people generally don't like to do things for other people. If they do, as time progresses, their 'help' is generally unhelpful (ie, they like fostering a sense of dependency on themselves).

But every time you ask for help, you are spending social capital, and that is not good. (Families are totally different; if people in your family are unhelpful, you will have to do it yourself anyway, and hope the dynamic changes over time).

Today, I had to find a way to get the chairman of the board of my company to get some speaking time at an awards ceremony with a partner organization. I had to get the other organization to cooperate. I did this by spending social capital and calling in a favour (accruing social capital is like collecting $1000 in pennies) and by relying on the other organization's fear of my org.

Mostly, I relied on benefit statements, and by repeating messages that acknowledged the other org's status and success. A little flattery can go a long way, depending on the sophistication of your audience.

But I generally try to avoid asking people for anything at all. On the other hand, I try to make myself as useful as possible.

Anyway, this probably doesn't help you - you need to be more precise in your question. However, it's always useful to:

- stand up straight
- make and maintain eye contact
- watch what you do with your hands (never touch your face or head)
- know what you want to say before you say it, and say it concisely
- prompt for a follow-up action on the part of the other person

"So, if you could give me that phone number, it would be great"

- as a courtesy, always leave a way out:

"If you have time, could you...."
"If this works for you, would it be possible to..."

Bosses, and people in positions of authority use entirely different methods of establishing their authority.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:47 PM on October 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

the Lord helps those who help themselves

Oh yes, I love doing things myself whenever it is at all possible. I'd be a total hermit working on my own if I could. Unfortunately, for me at least, the modern workplace seems to be all about teams.

I'm a professional cat herder

I'm not sure just what that means, but it sounds like you are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me.
posted by DarkForest at 7:56 PM on October 4, 2007

Unfortunately, for me at least, the modern workplace seems to be all about teams.

I work as part of a team - I have to rely on people to do things so I can do my job, like the neurotic communications staff. Sometimes people are unresponsive, no matter what I do. Best thing to do is make it easy for them, and then spell out what you need them to do, or what needs to be done on their end:

I'm worried that we don't have enough time for the November conference. I need some speaking notes for XoXo. What do you think?

Failure is never an option (ie, don't give them enough rope to hang themselves). Instead, get confirmation of the action they need to do, preferably with a realistic timeline. Send emails at the beginning of a day. Follow up in mid-afternoon.

I'm a professional cat herder

I'm not sure just what that means, but it sounds like you are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me.

It's a pretty common term. Look it up. You will find that you are one.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:14 PM on October 4, 2007

Thanks all. Sorry for the vaguely worded question.

To be clearer, I'm not asking about how to get people to find the copier paper for me or look up phone numbers for me, or whether or not it's a good idea.

I'm talking about interpersonal cooperation. Some people just seem to have a demeanor, an air about them, that generates respect. I'm interested in deconstructing that to see just what I'd need to improve on.
posted by DarkForest at 8:43 PM on October 4, 2007

I don't know if this is what you're looking for but I found taking the Dale Carnegie Communications and Human Relations course very helpful in that regard. The Some of the experience is a little cult-ish, but the methods and such they teach do really work.
posted by frieze at 9:09 PM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

With reservations, I recommend you look at Milton Erickson and NLP. NLP is over hyped and no cure-all. Whether live training would be of benefit or not is an open question. Milton Erickson, on the other hand, was the real deal. There's never been a greater expert on non-verbal communication and indirect influence than him, and I mean expert as practitioner not commentator. He's a fascinating figure to read about. While there are a number of good books by and about him, 'Uncommon Therapy' is the place to start. While most of his work concerns therapeutic use of hypnosis, he was a master rhetorician and his insights into communication have broader application. In my opinion, the best part of NLP is the model they made of Milton Erickson's use of language. I'm not sure which books to recommend here. There are many trainers and groups looking to sell "exclusive" packages and manuals. Caveat emptor. Richard Bandler's book 'Time for a Change' has a nice summary of all the linguistic distinctions. The rest of the book is a seminar transcript and is kind of blah, but it's not outrageously expensive. If you're interested in this sort of thing, that book and googling around, pulling what you can for free, might point you towards some more effective ways to use language. Just being aware of the effects of helper words like 'and', 'but' and 'if...then' can help. Be modest in your expectations, there's a lot of people selling stuff in this area that will promise the world.

There's a book on improvisational theater, 'Impro', that you would find interesting. The first chapter is about status and much of it consists of observations on how social status is manifested in interpersonal communication. Again, no quick fix here, just insight.

An Ask Metafilter search on boundaries and respect could be fruitful as well. There's no thread in particular that comes to mind but I know there's been a lot written on the subject. Take a look.

The best I can do for free specific advice is to be aware of your intent when speaking and to work towards it. Be more deliberate.
posted by BigSky at 9:17 PM on October 4, 2007

I understand what you're getting at, Dark Forest. I could try to organize a camping trip with friends but no one would really bite. Subsequently another friend could suggest it and everyone would immediately jump on board. It's happened numerous times and I've merely accepted that I am not cut out for those kinds of tasks. But I too would like to know what the magical element is that I'm missing. It'd be great if I could rally people for group outings and parties -- I tend not to have people over because I figure no one will show up anyway.
posted by loiseau at 9:19 PM on October 4, 2007

Neuro Linguistic Programming?
posted by goshling at 9:43 PM on October 4, 2007

Sorry, meant to include this NLP link above.
posted by goshling at 9:49 PM on October 4, 2007

I'm with you and loiseau, Dark Forest. I first noticed this in college. I had previously been the big fish in the smaller pond, but came to realize the hard way in college that there were simply people who had "it". People listened to them, followed them. They set the pace. I remember even being conscious of this once as it was happening, and trying to set my group's direction, even walking away confidently after I had said what we ought to do when everyone was waffling in search of direction. Nobody followed. Ouuuch. They all looked to the "it" guy instead and that pretty much settled that.

I agree with an earlier poster that it is very much about confidence. You do have to believe in yourself enough to be outspoken and tell it like it is every time. People get annoyed by noodle-spined wafflers. They walk over them and often resent them. You don't have to be a jerk, but do stand up and be confident. That will get you a long way but that's not it entirely.

For me, after a while, I just had to realize I wasn't that guy. It wasn't the slot I fit into. This was frustrating because I had always thought I was in fact that guy. Given the right mix of people, I am still that guy. People look to me, I get things moving, people will act on my ideas or direction. But if one of these "it" people shows up, I know they will automatically assume the role of prime mover. I've come to realize I'm a good advisor in those situations rather than the chief. That's still a useful role, but required me to cultivate some humility.
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:11 PM on October 4, 2007

It sounds like you're talking about charisma. The wikipedia page has some information on behaviors and traits associated with charismatic individuals, but it also suggests that charisma is an inborn quality that can't be learned.

While much of this phenomenon is certainly linked to behavior, I think there's a strong physical component that's hardwired into social hierarchy as well. It's why some actors are destined for "leading man" roles while others are denied. Audiences simply don't find certain actors credible as leading men, no matter how talented, because they don't look the part.

Physical prowess isn't a guarantee of charisma, but its absence is a pretty big hurdle to overcome. Playing against type is possible, but it's an uphill battle (cult leaders like Charles Manson or Jim Jones seem to be good examples for some reason).
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:58 AM on October 5, 2007

I have a friend who is totally the 'it' girl. She dominates any room she walks into, and does it in a way that people enjoy.

I've watched her do this for years and, though I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to employ any of these observations, here is what I've distilled her charm down to;

1) Volume. If people can't hear you, they won't try. She's confided to me that she's really rather insecure, but she comes off as confident because she's speaks up.

2) Confidence, or a reasonable facsilime thereof (see Volume).

3) No dead air. She won't allow lag in a conversation and actively participates in any conversation she's in. Speak-listen-respond, repeat. She doesn't babble, however, and keeps what she says on-topic and worth listening to.

4) A willingnes to push boundaries. She never apologizes for anything she says under any circumstances (actions, yes - words, no) and she is alright saying things that might be construed as a little 'racey'. Sometimes she does this intentionally to get people to listen up.

5) Active listening. Be loud, sure, but don't be a blow-hard. She really listens to what people say and responds in a way that lets them know it.

6) Eye contact. She looks directly at whoever is speaking to her or she is speaking to. She successfully avoids staring by glancing away now and again.

7) Posture. She always stands up straight and squares her shoulders at whoever she's paying attention to (no matter who's acctually speaking).

8) Smiling/laughing. She is jovial and finds ways to smile/laugh even when it's not a polite or laughing matter.

9) Controlled body movement. She never jerks or otherwise moves ungracefully.

It helps innitially that she's kind of a hottie, but I think it's the confidence and active participation that gets to people the most.

At the core of things, I think she tries to please herself first, and is seen as a satisfied person because of it. People tend to gravitate to people who they think can offer them some kind of answers, and socially that often means pleasure/assurance/placement/recognition.
posted by Pecinpah at 5:25 AM on October 5, 2007 [6 favorites]

Pecinpah has some solid observations. I've been the hanger-on to more than a few of the "it" people. Personally, I get nervous if I feel like everyone's looking at me to have the answers. The "it" people I know don't have this nervousness. They are so confident in having the answer that even if it's the WRONG answer, people will still follow them, because at least they have an answer! That cult of personality is backed up by a solid respectability, though. They're trustworthy people, they genuinely care about others, and they sincerely want to help others.
posted by desjardins at 6:51 AM on October 5, 2007

Over the last couple of years I have gone from being the insecure person who is desparate to attach themselves to somebody at social gatherings or unfamiliar situations to the person others attach themselves to...that was the first thing I noticed anyway last summer...since then I seem to have graviated towards being more of the centre of things and generally leading people...which is a very strange experience at first...

So what has changed? Well, I became truly independent. I started a job I really wanted and enjoyed and it turns out that I was really good at my confidence grew. And somehow I started to believe in myself and became independent as in - believing in yourself, being respectful of thers but also expecting to be treated with respect etc. Doing something because it is the right thing to do and not because I am expected to do it or want to impress somebody by it etc.

As a result a number of things have happened - apparently my voice sounds like that of a 16 year old - young and playful - I am 30! Apparently I look more glamorous - I haven't changed my style at all but I got asked the other day if there is a new man in my life...there isn't but clearly a number of things happened to make me change the way I look at the world and how the world looks at me!
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:49 AM on October 5, 2007

Read "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". I scoff at self-help and was reluctant to read this, but Carnegie truly has practical, basic, effective tips for developing camaraderie.
posted by schroedinger at 8:05 AM on October 5, 2007

Schroedinger, if you mean "How To Win Friends and Influence People" by Carnegie I highly second your recommendation.

The book is not Machiavellian at all.
posted by Wood at 9:46 AM on October 5, 2007

Audiences simply don't find certain actors credible as leading men, no matter how talented, because they don't look the part.

Physical prowess isn't a guarantee of charisma, but its absence is a pretty big hurdle to overcome.

This is somewhat tangential, but if you're a fan of 30 Rock at all, there's the fact that Rachel Dratch was originally supposed to play the (show-within-the-show) leading-lady role that Jane Krakowski now occupies. A lot of people cried foul at the time of the switch, but seriously: charisma matters. They're both funny, but Jane had "it."
posted by kittyprecious at 10:20 AM on October 5, 2007

Wood, that is indeed what I mean. I got the title quite wrong.
posted by schroedinger at 10:22 AM on October 5, 2007

This seems weird to admit, but I think I can safely say that I am a "born leader" like the people you are referring to. Leading a discussion/group/project/outing just comes naturally to me and is my first impulse in any situation. This makes me wonder if leadership really is a trait that some people are just born with. (I'm also the oldest child in my family, which might explain it?)

What I've had to learn over the years is how to be in charge without offending or annoying anyone. I try very hard to truly listen to everyone in a group - looking them in the eye and giving them their time to speak. I am more than happy to take their suggestions and I always attribute that idea to the person and do not take it as my own. However, I never give up control as I do this. I'll say "great idea, sue. let's do that and then..." I also try never to get into a power struggle with anyone. The whole idea is to make it seem like everyone is going along with you. When you starting fighting for control, you give up your position of power.

Frankly, the more often you jump in and take charge, the more often the people around you will just expect you to be in charge. However, unless you think it's really holding you back, I think there are other ways to get yourself heard without being the head honcho in every situation.
posted by jrichards at 10:31 AM on October 5, 2007

Start with your mind - your body will follow. You don't want to emulate confidence and presence, you want to have it. When you do, your body language will most likely reflect that.

I'd recommend you start with Cialdini's Influence
posted by rush at 1:34 PM on October 5, 2007

Improv classes can help with self-confidence.

Believe what you say, and take a deep breath before saying it so that your voice is strong and loud enough for everyone to hear.
posted by ramenopres at 4:38 PM on October 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Definitive Book of Body Language is a favorite of mine.
posted by philosophistry at 2:13 PM on October 8, 2007

I think its about confidence and attitude which leads to positive body language and image.

define self-confidence

is it the ability to believe positive things about yourself whilst ignoring all the negative things you think other people are thinking about you and putting positive slants on things you believe about yourself.

In that explanation you're potentially your own worst enemy. Its not mind over matter its mind over mind.

supposing you go to a party and dont know most of the ppl very well. at some point You're kind of sitting alone. If you sit there feeling separated and outcast. its going to show.
If you put positive slants on everything you're more likely to be sitting there with a wry smile on your face.

here's the wierd thing. you can be confident about being shy.

its perfectly ok to be shy
I dont have to talk to people just because they're there
watching people is fun

people are intrigued by enigmas.
You cant beat the enigma of talking confidently about being shy.
posted by browolf at 4:22 AM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

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