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What Do People Really Think of You?

A Quick and Dirty Guide to How We Judge One Another

by Matthew KohutFebruary 2015

When people size you up, what are they looking for?
The short answer is they want to understand your character. We humans have evolved a whole lot of neural circuitry for making split-second character judgments about each other. These judgments are a big deal, shaping every aspect of our lives.

And when we decide how to feel about someone, we’re not just making one judgment — we’re making two. The criteria that count are strength and warmth.

Strength gets things done. As a personal quality, strength is a measure of how much a person can impose their will on our world. Strength consists of two basic elements: the ability to affect the world and the gumption to take action. In short, it is a combination of skill + will. Grudgingly or gladly, we respect people who project strength. We look to strong people as leaders because they can protect us from threats to our group. Strength is essential to effective leadership in any group setting.

But strength alone can only take us so far. To move beyond respect to admiration, we also need to be liked. And to do that, we need to project warmth. For our purposes, warmth is what people feel when they recognize that they share interests and concerns. It is the sense of being on the same team. If strength is about whether someone can carry out their intentions, warmth is about whether you will be happy with the result. When people project warmth, we like them. Warmth encompasses several related concepts, including empathy, familiarity, and love.

Once you grasp this insight, it opens up a whole new window on the human experience. You can understand why certain people are appealing by looking closely at how they project strength and warmth. Or you can see what makes others seem cold or weak.

Knowing that strength and warmth matter is one thing, but acting on that insight turns out to be tricky, because it’s 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.

This presents each of us with a dilemma. Do we choose to project warmth, so people like us? Do we instead show strength, so we command respect? Or do we try our best to project strength and warmth, knowing that one undermines the other and we might end up failing at both?
It turns out to be a false choice. Strength and warmth are complementary, not mutually exclusive opposites, and there is a lot of interplay between them.

The Choice Is Yours
Character is a matter of who you choose to be. People judge your character by the way you act, and especially by the way you interact with them.

Even if a lot of behavior is unconscious, nearly all of it can be subject to conscious choice. You can choose to learn how to behave differently: You can take steps that change your unconscious reactions in the future.
Once you discover the lens of strength and warmth, it changes the way you see others…and yourself.

Adapted from John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential (Hudson Street Press, 2013). All rights reserved.

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