By Wayne Elise
Drive through Los Angeles and you may spot me. I'm the guy running the streets of Los Feliz with my bare feet. People point fingers. Dogs turn mid-pee to stare. I get mocked in Spanish by the guys standing along the street in front of Home Depot. "Mira, a ese wey no le alcanzo para zapatos?"
Erika rolled her eyes when I announced my new fitness routine. "You're going to get hepatitis."
I shrugged my shoulders. "If I do and I die, I want you to remember I love you. I also want to be cremated, and my ashes made into a cake and fed to celebrities."
"No," she said. "I'm going to feed you to homeless people."
I ran out the door and down the street in my bare feet. I began smiling as I ran. I hummed the Willie Nelson song On The Road Again. I enjoyed my run so much that when I returned home I threw my running shoes in the trash. But then I had second thoughts. I pulled them out and tossed them to the neighbor's Pitbull for good measure. "Rip 'em up boy," I said. He looked down at the shoes and rolled his eyes.
Running shoes are well intended. They offer padding and stabilization to ostensibly protect a runner's feet. But running shoes remove a runner from their natural interaction with the running surface. They permit and encourage runners to run in a manner that damages their bodies. By trying to protect feet, they hurt people.
Sit on a park bench and watch the feet of passing runners. Pay attention to the moment their feet land on the running surface. The leg is extended and nearly straight as the heel lands first.
"I'm sorry. Did you say the heel?"
"Yeah, the heel. The freaking heel!"
Landing on your heel is like dropping a wooden pole endwise onto concrete. With each stride the ligaments and joints of the knees, hips and back are crunched under impact shock from the runner's body weight. Virtually every runner is injured and has to stop or take a break from running due to the culmination of impact shock.
Trust nature. Back in the Paleolithic Age, eons before shoes were invented, human legs reached their evolutionary zenith. Back then runners landed on their forefoot then soaked up downward momentum using the strength of their calf muscles and elasticity of their Achilles Tendon before springing forward again into the next stride. Anyone landing on their heel was washed out of the gene pool.
"Hey what happened to Grok?"
"Broke his feet with that stupid stride he used. We had to leave him behind. Pretty sure he got eaten by a sabertooth."
"He was funny."
"Yeah he was. Remember that time he pushed a rock down a hill with a stick?"
"Ha. Good times. Did he have any last words?"
"He called out, 'This wouldn't have happened if I had shoes.'"
"What are shoes?"
I'm hooked on barefoot running. My knees and back no longer ache while I run. Running barefoot has helped me become more engaged with running. I don't feel compelled to carry my iPod to escape boredom. I scan for pebbles, glass and organic debris. I look ahead for the smoothest concrete. I pay attention to the feel of the running surface under my feet. And I run with a smile on my face.
I made Erika walk outside the other day so I could show off my barefoot stride on the sidewalk. Her reaction surprised me. She clasped her hands together. "Aww, that's so cute."
I stopped running and looked around thinking there must be a mom pushing a stroller behind me. "What? What's so cute."
"You," she said. "The way you run looks as if you're sneaking up on someone. It's cute."
Here I was thinking my running looked hardcore. I imagined myself carrying a spear and hunting Wooly Mammoths on the African plains 200 thousand years ago. "No. I'm a caveman."
But she was right. Turns out barefoot running looks cute - like we're sneaking up on someone. Indeed the goal of barefoot running for me is neither speed nor distance, but rather to run as lightly as possible. It's a Zen thing. I try to feel at peace with being passed by a 'banger' wearing running shoes while I focus on my soft as pillow landing.
I didn't make any of this up of course. Barefoot running has become a global movement since the release of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. If anything I'm late to the party. A few years ago, my friend Jay, whom many of you know, bought those Vibram FiveFinger running shoes. At the time, I laughed at him as we ran around Central Park together.
"Those shoes are way too geeky. I rename them Jay's no-hot-girls-going-to-talk-to-him shoes."
Jay took my teasing well. "These shoes are all about getting close to barefoot," he said. "I'm strengthening my feet this way and running more how nature intended."
"Yeah, whatever Jay. Just don't be too close to me when we run by those French girls up there. Nature intended us to look good to French girls."
"How do you know they're French?"
"I saw them being rude to people earlier."
Ha. Look who's laughing now Jay? Um, you are of course.
Anyhow, if you're interested, there are a lot of resources out there on the topic. Just Google barefoot running.
It's a metaphor.
The question you're wondering is what this has to do with the things you come to Charisma Arts to learn. Okay, here's the connection. I'd like you to think of running barefoot as a metaphor for interacting with people.
What ARE you talking about Wayne?
I'll explain. But first relax, sit down, find your slippers and PJs. This may take awhile.
Scientists point to findings that demonstrate happiness is linked to experiencing new things.
"Welcome to the lab," says a guy wearing a lab coat and chewing gum while he talks. "Here's what we did in our experiment. We presented our test subject chimpanzee with a physically fit female to whom he had no previous exposure. We then observed significant increases in electrochemical activity in the brain region associated with happiness."
"Yes but so what? She's an attractive mate. Of course he's happy."
"You're not a scientist are you?"
"I didn't think so. It's NOT just an attractive female that creates this response. It's a NEW attractive female. The test subject had limited happiness response when exposed to the many other attractive females with whom he had previously been exposed. Arousal, maybe. But happiness, no. It's newness that creates happiness."
"But why did you have to dress them in lingerie?"
"Um. That's just for us."
"Gotcha. And the lipstick?"
I think this guy's onto something with his 'new equating to happiness' thing. But we don't need science to tell us that. We can look inside ourselves and feel it. Just as our bodies want exercise, so too our brains want to interact with new ideas, new people and new social configurations. We want new challenges. We want to deepen our relationships and expand our social horizon.
All that is within our reach. Evolution or God or whatever you want to call it made us social animals.
But to reach our social potential we have to create honest and vulnerable conversation with people. Unfortunately we don't do that anymore. Not since we were eight years old.
Erika and I were standing at the DMV office yesterday waiting to transfer title on a car when a boy waiting with his mother struck up a conversation. He held out his mother's iPhone. "Guess how many games I have?" he asked.
I studied him for a moment. "I don't know. Let's see. I guess a hundred."
"Ptthhh." He rolled his eyes and began counting. "I've got thirty two," he announced.
I smiled. "That's way more than I have. You should give me a few."
He laughed and showed me one of his games. "I like this one," he said.
"How old are you kid?" I asked.
"That's a good age. And what do you do for a living?"
He just stared at me.
"You know… a job, occupation, career?"
"I like playing games." he said.
"Nice. Your preoccupation is your occupation. You live life on your own terms."
But I'd lost him to staring at Erika's cleavage.
You remember the open and vulnerable way you talked as a child I'm sure. It's natural that we lose some of that as we age. But the most charismatic adults I've met are able to tap into child-like openness and vulnerability. They play and express their emotions and move to the music and share their imagination. They're eager to take the initiative and smile and tell you what they would like to see happen.
Too bad most people have become conversationally fearful. Before we leave home we tie our conversation shoes on over our personalities to protect ourselves from conversational dings.
"Where's that coffee from?"
"A roaster in New York."
"New York is for rich people."
"Yeah it is. What do you do?"
"I work in entertainment. I work with the director who made The Last Picture Show."
"Isn't he dead?"
"No. He's just on sabbatical."
Blah Blah Blah. We've encased our conversations in neoprene-cushioned, stability-controlled, rubber-soled conversation shoes. We never let our real selves out to play and interact. We ask questions we don't care about. We espouse opinions disguised as facts. We buy into a need to demonstrate value. We tuck our vulnerabilities away behind a sheen of artificiality.
All that stuff protects us from awkward moments but it isolates our senses and blocks our intuition about people. We're left to guess or ignore how our conversational partner is feeling. It's no surprise then that we often make the wrong moves. We insult when we should compliment. We annoy when we should intrigue. We hang back when we should move forward. We move forward when we should hang back. We stop trusting our instincts and instead buy into multi-step interaction methods.
The first step toward reclaiming our innate interaction skills is to remove the layers of things we stick in our conversations to protect us from the inevitable, natural conversational dings. Once we can stand in front of each other naked we can begin to accurately read our conversational partners and make the appropriate moves. Here are a few suggestions to get naked.
Stop asking questions to perpetuate conversation. Asking questions out of personal curiosity is wonderful. But we so often misuse questions. We use them to perpetuate conversation. I catch myself making this mistake sometimes. I hear it like an orchestra conductor hears a wrong note blown from the tuba section.
"What do you do?" I ask.
This sounds like an F-flat when the score calls for a B minor.
"Well..." she says.
I wave her off. "Oh no. Don't answer that question. It's a ritualized question. We can talk about that later. Let's talk about something we both feel more excited to talk about at this point so early in the conversation."
"No it's okay. I'm an art history major. But I also have a job at the Moma."
"Oh dang. I really wish you wouldn't have told me that."
"Because I was just trying to make a point with the readers. Look, I didn't what to tell you this but you're just a conversational straw girl."
"A figment of my imagination. You don't really exist."
"This is horrible."
"I know. I imagined you with all sorts of wonderful assets."
"Yeah. Now I'm imagining you out of existence."
We often resort to asking questions when we're afraid of silence. Which is understandable. In the fragile beginnings of a conversation, silence can indicate an end to the conversation. But asking questions to push away silence only creates more silence. After our conversational partner answers our question we're in a worse position than before we asked the question. After we get an answer its even harder to improv a good statement. So we have to ask another question. It's a Ponzi scheme.
"Where did you get that phone?"
"At the T-Mobile store."
"Do you like it?"
"You do? You like it?"
"Yes. You have a hearing problem or something cowboy?"
The gambit runs out and we're revealed as a person who doesn't seem to have anything unique or personal to share.
"No. I guess I just have nothing to say."
"Yep. Dang Ponzi scheme. I get them all the time. Why can't I meet a man with something to say? Anyway, you better get outta here little doggie. Giddyup!"
"Well you don't have to be so mean about it."
"Sure I do. It's in the script. Page three, scene five, paragraph six."
"Wait. I just read ahead. In chapter eight we have sex. Alright!"
"No. That's a misprint."
The solution to silence is to make peace with the fact that some silence is natural and inevitable in conversation. Indeed silence is also when many conversations take a breath before running deeper toward a more personal connection.
It's okay to temporarily run out of words. Stay calm. Resist the temptation to ask a question. Keep eye-contact with your conversational partner. Breath deeply. Stretch. Smile. Be at peace with the silence. DO NOT CHECK OUT and start inspecting the floor for fairy tale creatures. There's no such thing. STAY WITH YOUR CONVERSATIONAL PARTNER. Keep eyes and face turned toward your conversational partner. DO NOT CHECK OUT! DO NOT CHECK OUT!!
You may find it helpful to let your conversational partner know you want the conversation to continue but can't think of anything to say. That'll often cue the other person to share more to fill the gap.
"I'm into origami."
"Or-i-gam-i. Okay, cool. I've never known anyone who's folded paper like that. I'm not sure how to relate to it. But I'd love to hear more."
"No worries. I'll show you some origami now. I can fold a bank note into the likeness of Pippa Middleton's bum."
"Oh, you're English. I didn't' realize that. Tally-ho then."
"Ahem. Yes. Tally-ho. It would also be brilliant if we sat for tea and crumpets. They're just smashing I say."
If we freak out over silence our conversational partner will cut the connection with us. We'll have to regain their focus if we want to pick the conversation up again. It'll take a big topic or reason to do that.
"Hey, I just saw Elvis and Kurt Cobain holding hands and walking past the window!"
"No you didn't."
"Yeah you're right. I was just trying to get your attention."
"Well you shouldn't have let it go in the first place."
"Curses, I know."
Regaining conversation after a disconnect is hard.
It's much easier to act calmly toward silence and leave the connection open. That'll allow us to comment on even small things to rebuild the conversational momentum.
"I like tapping my fingers together like this."
"I like spinning pens."
"Well, we got that sort of thing in common."
"We do indeed. Want to rent Elvis and Kurt Cobain costumes and walk around together?"
"Hell yes. I thought you'd never ask."
Break the fourth wall. This term is borrowed from theatre where the fourth wall is the invisible, imaginary wall that separates the actors and action on stage from the audience. It's as if there are two separate realities. An actor is said to have broken the fourth wall when he or she interacts directly with the audience, merging for a moment, the two realities.
Years ago I was sitting in the audience watching a musical when Tony award winning actor Norbert Leo Butz flubbed a line on stage. He turned to the audience and joked about rehearsals and airplanes and how hard he finds it to memorize lines. The audience laughed, and he went back into character and continued the show. Afterwords, all anybody could talk about was his off the cuff banter with the audience. People were impressed that he would trust them with a confession not to be a perfect acting machine. This built a connection with the audience that went beyond entertainment.
We have something similar going on in our conversations. We're actors in our conversations but we're also narrators and observers. It's cool to step out from our character occasionally and allow our conversational observers to speak directly to each other. This breaks the fourth wall.
"I like this."
"This. Two people just meeting like this and spontaneously getting to know each other. I think this sort of thing is rare for most people. Too bad for them. It feels like an adventure."
"Yeah it does. Let's go for ice cream. I'll race you."
"Wait! Wait! Didn't you notice the cast on my foot? I've got a broken foot. She's gone. Too bad. I liked her. And now I'm just here with you guys reading this on the Charisma Arts blog. Hey, so when is Wayne going to finish that next ebook anyway? Didn't he promise that months ago? Geez…"
By breaking the fourth wall we acknowledge the duality of human consciousness and add a layer of connection with our partners that most people miss out on.
Ditch the need for exciting stories. In the last few years people have embraced the idea of telling exciting, and often untrue, stories as a means of demonstrating value. "Gee whiz Captain Stardust where do we go now?" Bleah!
In my opinion, this is a destructive idea. The morals of misrepresenting truth aside, we'll never be open to connect as long as we're trying to prove our worthiness for connection. That's like Skynet sending the Terminator back in time to kill the mother of John Connor so that it's future victory is assured. The whole idea is rife with unworkable paradox. Okay, it's actually nothing like that. But I have been dying to squeeze a Terminator reference in here all night.
Here's a better metaphor. I was sharing dinner with performer friends recently when the conversation came around to what makes a good show.
One of the people there was Owen Morse of the comedy juggling team Passing Zone. He's a friend of my good friend Josh. Owen made the point that the connection with the audience is more important than telling funny jokes or pulling off amazing feats of coordination. "If you've got a connection with the audience you have everything," I remember him saying.
This from a guy who, with his partner Jon Wee, has been working as an entertainer for years. The two of them have performed at The White House and on the Tonight Show and with Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, Bob Newhart and George Carlin. We should realize two things about Owen. Number one, he knows how to entertain people. And number two, he's really old.
My point is, if such a good and seasoned performer is saying this then we should be convinced as to the importance of connection over interesting material.
In my own experience with street performing and giving talks over the past ten years I can tell you that the connection is not the most important thing. It's everything. I had this conversation after a lecture I gave recently.
"Wayne, I liked your talk. You're very entertaining. I'd like to be as good a speaker as you. But it seems as if you bring a lot of wit to your talks. I don't know if I could do that."
"Thanks," I said. "I appreciate your kind words. The secret is to drink lots of coffee."
"The truth is that you could easily do what I do. It's not wit. That's an illusion. It's connection. I'm open to reading my audience. I let them guide me. It doesn't come from up here in my head. It comes from out there on people's faces."
"Really? I don't see how that's possible."
"You just gotta get over yourself. You're thinking that speaking to an audience is a competition - as if you have to win them over."
"No dammit because the audience wants to be your partner. They WILL be your partner - so long as you show them you're real, vulnerable, naked. That allows them to place their trust in you."
"It is at first. But then you do it, and you realize it's easier. I'm over myself. Okay. That's not true. I try to be over myself. You should never trust anyone who claims to be Zen. Only the true messiah would deny being the messiah. Not that I'm denying being the messiah because I want you to think I'm the messiah - because I'm clearly not the messiah. I don't even know what the hell I'm talking about. I'm agnostic. Reminds me of a Monty Python skit though."
"The one with the shoe - in Life of Brian."
"Yeah, that's it. But in any case, I've given up the need to impress and entertain. Its too hard that way. I want to relax and connect instead of worrying about what to say next. The stories and humor are created together with an audience in partnership." I brought my hands clasping together - trying to be dramatic.
He shook his head. "I still don't get it."
"Perhaps I'm not articulating it well. It may be something that you just have to try. At your next talk go up with no material. Trust in the connection. All that you need is there in front of you. You'll see it if you're vulnerable, open and naked."
"Like really naked? Like strip off my clothes?"
"No. Don't do that. I'm speaking metaphorically. Jesus."
"It's a lot like religion. You gotta have faith."
"I think I could relate to it more if I thought of it like the Force from Star Wars."
"Yeah, you can do that." I swung my empty coffee cup around pretending it was the handle of a light saber. "You gotta believe in your light saber in order for it to work."
"I'm pretty sure light sabers work regardless of belief."
"Yeah, you're probably right. They should have some kinda passcode or at least a child lock on those things though don't you think?"
"Okay, I get it now. You really aren't witty are you?"
"Ummm… thanks for noticing. I'm so out of here. Chewie, call me a cab."
Sharing opinions is NOT the equivalent of connecting with our humanity.
Sharing our opinions is not intrinsically destructive. It's just that so many of us try to use opinions as a proxy for connecting with people.
Two single parents meet in a park.
"I have two wonderful daughters. How about you?"
"I have a boy. He's seven. He's a challenge."
"They are at that age. You got to keep a firm hand."
"Yeah, sure do."
"This is such a beautiful day."
"Yeah it is."
"Okay. See you next week. Bye."
"Wow, she was hot. I have no idea how to make that happen."
"He was hot. I have no idea how to get him interested."
Connecting to an opinion is like connecting to a political action committee. It feels safe joining a mass of like-minded people but ultimately we're left feeling disconnected and unknown as individuals.
The way to connect with people is to be vulnerable enough to share our feelings and unique viewpoint. Every person feels differently about every topic. We connect with others, not by espousing an opinion we expect our conversational partner to agree with, but rather by trusting the other person enough to express our feelings and unique perspective. This allows them to trust us enough to do the same. To connect, first be an individual.
"I have two daughters. They're kicking my ass. Not a day goes by that they don't teach me something new. Have you heard about this new thing they call it F-a-c-e-b-o-o-k? Ha."
"I have a boy. He's seven. He looks like his dad - which to tell you the truth, drives me crazy."
"I bet. My girls don't look like either my ex or me. I'm pretty sure they were switched on us at the hospital. But I love them. Well, I do love the younger one more."
"Oh my god. Really?"
"No, not really. Okay, maybe a little."
"Ha. I know what you mean. Sometimes I love Dougy more than other times."
"Hey. I don't know what you're doing the rest of the day but I'd like to grab a coffee with you. We can do more of this. I'll tell you the rest of my single dad jokes. Well, actually they're not jokes. They're my life."
"Sure. Okay. Sounds fun."
"Great. That makes me happy. There's this place a couple blocks from here I like."
Throw some books in the trash and delete from your Kindle. NLP guidebooks, seduction method books, the Fifty Rules of Powerful Bastards and Bitches, and whatnot materials appeal to people trying to protect their skin. These materials are mental masturbation. They give the people studying them the illusion of being productive toward their social goals but in reality it's like studying Voodoo. The only special power they give us is the ability to promote wonky psychological theories.
The first thing I do when working with a new client is observe them in natural conversation. I can spot the ones who're into these kinds of materials. They're slow. They're in their heads formulating responses based on a theory they read. Or trying to force a memorized story into a weird conversational hole.
"Get rid of that crap," I tell my them. "It's just going to make you seem mentally challenged. In real life, conversation moves too quickly and is too fluid to be pinned down by psychological methods. You're going to have your conversational-head handed to you by rivals who just don't care about manipulating people. While you're thinking about the next step in your method, they're free to be charming."
Tip: Instead of reading more self-help we should be reading more character-driven fiction to help us become better at talking from a personal perspective. Here's an old post on reading material I recommend.
Communicate visually. We don't want to just hang up on people when they extend an offer of communication. I used to do that as a kid before people could look up a number with caller ID. My friends and I used to prank telephone people just to hang up on them. You know how this goes.
"Who is this?"
"What the fuck?"
Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.
"Is Tabitha there?"
"What? No. There's no Tabitha here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure."
Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.
"Hello, God dammit. What do you want? Stop calling here!"
"Hey calm down."
"Who is this?"
"This is Tabitha. Do I have any messages?"
"Ha. Very funny. You fucking kids can die for all I care."
"Um no. You will die because you're old and ugly."
We were bad kids. Our karma is screwed. But yours might still be saved. Think of visual communication like a telephone line. As soon as someone picks up, stay on the line and communicate. When you exchange eye contact, begin to say something, even if it's only mouthing words. It's a visual thing. Move your hands, smile, point at their shoes and give a thumbs up. Do whatever you have to do to keep the communication open and continuous until you can walk closer and talk.
Yes, you will feel more vulnerable communicating visually. But as you know, if you've read this far, that's a good thing. The added non-verbal interaction time will help the other person feel more comfortable with you and they will see you as a person they can be vulnerable with.
Show your unique self through your wardrobe. I'd like to say that looks don't matter. But they do. If we walk into our favorite coffee shop wearing a black hoodie and sunglasses we'll get a different reaction than if we walk in with a collared shirt and a smile. I've done this. If we wear a scarf and a t-shirt (one of my favorite looks) we get a different reaction than if we wear dress pants and a sweater.
I don't claim to be a fashion expert. When people ask me for fashion advice I just tell them to match the color of their belt to their shoes. I have my own fashion taste which runs neo-hipster. Some people say I dress too young for my age. But when I take the time to dress right I receive unsolicited compliments from women. I like those.
So what's the right way to dress? Well, the details depend on you. I just know that fashion should help reveal your personal taste and unique perspective. Try not to fit into a known fashion cliché. Don't be an identifiable hipster or jock or prissy or nerd or post-apocalyptic Euro-trash or whatever. You are not trying to be a member of a group. Find your own path which may be a mix of different types. You might even enjoy changing your fashion every day. Experiment and have fun with it.
The willingness to work your style will add to people's perception of you as a vulnerable person. You may be surprised at just how much a change in the way people interact with you can be made with fashion alone.
Stop thinking of communication as a means to go somewhere else. We've all read emails and SMS messages, and heard conversations that are only means to an end.
"Hi Teddy. It's Kate. Just calling to wish you a happy birthday. Happy birthday. What are you doing on Friday? There's going to be a great party in my building. You should come. Okay, talk to you later. Bye."
These messages seem devoid of life. They might be as well be constructed by zombies on a lunch break: "Hi June. Call me sometime and we can get together and go hit that new gallery, and then afterwards, if there's a spark, and we feel the connection, I'll eat your brain."
These messages may call for action but they miss the point. Social communication exists not to make something happen but rather to carry the vulnerability and unique perspective of the people having the conversation. It's its own reward. Instead of thinking about getting things out of an interaction, think about how to lower the static and tune into the right frequency. Do that and the connections that allude so many of us will come naturally to you.
Allow yourself to be misunderstood. Never lose your sense of humor. Confess things that aren't in your best interests. Poke fun at yourself. Challenge your need for a specific outcome to your conversations. Be naked and hold the reigns of life loosely.
"Hi Teddy. It's Kate. I'm happy you're getting older. Congratulations you dirty black crow you. Sorry - been watching Game of Thrones. Anyways, can't wait to see you. Judy from accounting called and she wanted the two of us to join her for a hot tub party. I don't know about that. She's not my type really. I prefer leggy blondes but it's your birthday so it's your call. Later."
If it helps, imagine a planet-killing meteor on a collision course. You and everyone on Earth are going to die in an hour. I doubt you'll waste that time trying to get something. There's no point. Instead you'll spend that hour enjoying the people you're with. Do that and you'll know what it's like to interact without your conversation shoes.
All the best, Wayne Elise