How to be intimidating. Or not.
I recently had a conversation about intimidation with a person who was
concerned that they were scaring others, even when they tried not to do so. Here
are some of the thoughts that came out of that very interesting conversation.
Intimidating others means engendering fear, often with the purpose of
coercing them into doing something they do not want to do. We can also do this
accidentally or deliberately - the bottom line is that the other person feels a
degree of fear as a result of their encounter with us.
Ways we can intimidate others include:
- Staring at them, particularly without blinking.
- Getting too close to them,
entering their 'personal space'.
- Speaking aggressively, even about other people.
- Moving jerkily or suddenly, especially when you are close or when actions
simulate harm (eg. chopping motion or with fist).
- Behaving erratically and
unpredictably, so they do not know what you will say or do next.
The ease with which we can accidentally intimidate suggests that we might reflect on how
we act around others. Maybe we don't mean to be intimidating, yet it's
possible we sometimes are, though without really noticing it. Paradoxically,
when are act in intimidating ways, it is often a response to feeling intimidated
ourselves. We sense aggression and meet fire with fire, escalating our
aggressive stance. This can be overt and deliberate, but is often subtle and not
noticed, even by us. Yet even small changes in how we act can make others
A way to monitor this is to watch how other people react around you. Do they look alarmed? Do they back
away? Do they give you space? Do they avoid you altogether? If so, try to see
yourself through their eyes and decide consciously how you want them to respond
to you, and consequently how you need to act around them.
To be non-intimidating, just do the reverse of intimidating action. For
- Look warmly at them, but not for too long.
- Give them space and act respectfully.
- Listen attentively and act in kindly ways.
- Be positive about other people.
- Move smoothly and naturally. Keep hands open.
Who moved my table? Nobody, but I should have!
Last weekend I was helping out with 'Bee Friendly Monmouthshire' a local
voluntary group that is working to increase awareness and action in protecting
pollinators, including butterflies, moths, hoverflies and, of course bees.
There's around 260 varieties of wild bees in the UK and without them, farmers
would have to spend about £1.8B in artificial pollination, yet the pressures of
survival means they are still planting monocultures that limit pollinator feed,
cutting undergrowth where pollinators live and using poisons that kill
pollinators as well as pests.
But enough of that. Much of my work with BfM is in persuasive wording, but
last weekend I was just manning a stall at a country house nearby which was
opening its gardens to the public as a part of the
National Gardens Scheme.
The situation was that there was a set of tables selling various things just
next to the house, snagging visitors as they came to see the gardens. Near me
was a range of plant stalls, selling flowers and vegetable seedlings at quite
reasonable prices. I put my table a little away from them at what I thought was
a nice angle, in a curve nearer the front door of the house. People like bees, I
though. They'll come to see me as they walk in and not be distracted by the
I was quite wrong. I was not the bee. They were. The real attraction for
people coming to visit the gardens was the cheap plants. Not some guy in the
corner going on about bees.
What I should have done was to move my table up next to the plant stalls, so
as the visitors moved down the line, they ended up with me. But somehow I didn't
do this. Why? Because of embarrassment and pride. If I'd moved my table, I would
have to admit that I was wrong. Even if no words were exchanged with the other
stallholders, they would know -- I would be admitting to having been wrong.
Darn that pride. It stops us doing the right thing so often. Next time, I'll
swallow it. Really.
As, Bs and the Three Secrets of a Successful Life
I recently answered a question on Quora that asked 'My teacher said B
students will work for the A students. Is this true?'. I felt for the
student, whose situation I did not know. I also felt for the teacher -- I've
been there and motivating students can be a hugely frustrating task.
Here is my answer to the question. Yes, I know it's not quite the answer
asked. I was trying to answer the real question underneath:
What your teacher is probably really saying is that the students who are
getting Bs but who are capable of getting As are showing a tendency to be lazy.
Life is generally not kind to those who are lazy, and indeed they do tend to end
up working for people who are more diligent.
The secret of success is often described as 'hard work and luck', which
pretty much describes my life. I worked my socks off, had my fair share of luck
and retired from 'real' work at 58, although five years later I'm still as busy
as I've every been.
I've heard a number of successful people say that the harder they work, the
luckier they get, which suggests that what people call luck is not random
chance, but being able to see opportunities and then grasping them with both
hands. It also suggests that successful people are grateful for the
opportunities that they have had -- and as gratitude is closely linked with
happiness, this explains how you can be both successful and happy (and
relatively few people have both).
So what does this mean for you?
School is about opportunity. Take it, while you can. Grasp it with both hands
and see it as a fabulous chance to build a great future. Work hard, because
every hour invested now will likely pay you back hugely in the future.
If, after this, you get a B, then be grateful, because otherwise you would
probably have got a C or D. If you get an A, be grateful too, then seek the
step-up opportunities that this gives you. Even if you get a C or whatever, you
can still feel good because you have done your best. Look for strengths in other
subjects, because we all have different talents. Do not give up because failure
only happens when you stop trying.
Work hard. Grasp opportunities. Be grateful. It's the secret of a successful
Another great article! I loved the last paragraph. Will
add it to my quote list.
-- Ivan M.
Free Speech, Dignity and Tolerance
In free society, there are two counterbalancing sets of rights and duties.
Firstly, the right of free speech allows me to speak my mind without fear of
reprisal. This places a duty of tolerance on those who may dislike what I say.
On the other hand, there is also a right of dignity, whereby speakers have a
duty to be considerate in their speech, self-censoring before speaking.
This creates a continuing tension, where we want to express ourselves while
repressing others. This can be seen where opposing people each claim the right
and impose the duty that suits them best. A common instance is in religion,
where people of one faith are intolerant of people with different beliefs, yet
expect tolerance of their own outspoken views
There is a point in here about power, including personal power to speak and
act at will, as well as formal power of authority and law. The right of free
speech assumes those insulted are powerful enough to silence or take harmful
revenge on controversial speakers. Laws of free speech hence give protection to
speakers and place a duty on listeners to hold back any desire to attack. On the
other hand, the right of dignity assumes many are powerless to defend against
those who cause distress or orher harm by what they say. Laws here include those
around libel, harassment, equality and incitement.
It is a sad indictment of the human condition that we tend to selfish lack of
consideration. When insulted, we feel justified in responding harshly. Worse,
bullies gain pleasure in the distress of others as they boost their own sense of
control and power. To counteract this tendency, social norms and formal laws
form a structure that seeks to balance freedom and protection, moderating more
powerful people from using harmful speech or revenge against speakers.
There has in recent years been a steady increase in laws and norms that
support dignity over free speech. While the rights of the vulnerable are of
course important, this has transferred power to their protectors, some of whom
abuse this power as they seek to silence their critics while trumpeting their
own cause. The move to dignity rights has also led to increasing sensitivity,
where people take insult more easily. Paradoxically, this leads to a more
paranoid and less tolerant society. Indeed, the outrage that intolerance
provokes can be linked to much modern conflict.
For people of different beliefs to coexist, perhaps we need to rebalance a
little, allowing more insult and expecting more toleration than outrage. The
happy medium should be both a right to talk without fear of reprisals, and a
duty to be tolerant of those who speak their minds. When we express our views,
we should be both fearless and considerate, not just one or the other.
How do you deal with someone who has a
I sometimes respond to questions on Quora,
in which I try to encourage people to be positive and thoughtful. Here's one I
wrote recently on the question of how to handle people who always seem to act in
a superior way, as if they are better than you and you are inferior. It's an
annoying situation that we all face, some on a daily basis.
First watch them. Do they act superior with everyone, or mostly you? If the
latter, then look for things you do that unintentionally encourages them. For
example do you feel inferior at any level? You can also ask a trusted friend who
can see both of you in action.
Also think: what exactly do they do that bothers me? Why does it bother me?
The above may offer you a way to change how you react to them that helps you
You can also try to understand what is driving them to act this way. It may
be a reaction to them feeling inferior and over-compensating. If you can get a
better handle on how they are thinking and feeling, you will have a far better
chance of managing the situation.
Much human behaviour is based in the desire for status. You can see it in
many everyday conversations and the way we try to impress people and get their
approval. You also see it in the way people try to push others down so they can
(relatively) rise. This can lead to status battles, where the real issue is not
about business and not about respect. The pattern is often win-lose. At best
both people get a little out of most encounters. At worst it is lose-lose.
Try to step away from status and win-lose thinking. Try moving the
conversation and situation towards win-win. They will often resist this as they
see you winning as them losing. Persist with adult, peer interactions (not
parent-child) with them. Be authentic. Be patient. Avoid being negative.
You can fight back, but only do so when you have given the positive approach
a good go. Only do so when you are ready. Do not pick a fight you will lose. Aim
for short, sharp responses that will make them think hard about what they are
doing (and give them time to do this).
In the end, if they cannot move from their superiority position and insist on
taking more than they give, then go elsewhere. If they are friends, dump them.
If they are people at work, move to another position or get another job
Populism and terrorism: two trends with a common
There has recently been a spate of populist
politics around the world, from Syriza in Greece to Podemas in Spain to UKIP in
the UK. It works with individuals too, and the popularity of Donald Trump and
Bernie Sanders in the USA presidential primaries plays to the same basic
Imagine you are young, possibly unemployed and finding life incredibly tough.
Your pay is low, rents are high and rocketing, and the general gap between where
you are and where you would like to be seems to be widening way faster than you
could ever catch up. Your future, if you ever had one, seems to be fading even
before you got going. You see older generations or middle classes who are doing
ok and feel you will never have it as good as them. You see fat cats in business
who pay themselves enormous salaries and even bigger bonuses. Politicians
naturally suck up to these richer voters and seem to have all but abandoned you.
And, for that matter, your friends and maybe your entire family.
Imagine alternatively that you have moved to a new country, or perhaps your
parents did. From birth, you are an outsider. Yes, you have your local
community, but the older people just hark on about the old country which you
know little about. You faced bias and bullying when growing up. Then much of the
jobs market seems closed to you. And when some idiot who only has the same
religion as you commits a terrorist act, you are suddenly a prime suspect, being
stopped or ignored even more. You feel abandoned, outside the system. Even if
you were doing well within the system, perhaps working towards a well-respected
profession, you know you will always be treated with suspicion.
Then somebody comes along who understands your plight. They criticize the
corrupt establishment who do not understand you and care even less. They promise
to make things better. They say your world will be so much nicer, if only you
follow them. So you do. You like them. You may even get to love them, for at
last here is someone with who you can connect. And when their rhetoric is
criticized by outsiders, this only serves to intensify your connection with
them. Of course those establishment people will criticize, just like they always
have. What do they care about you? Not like your new leader, who truly
understands you, who will fix things for you, and for who you will do goodness
Populism and terrorism are not the same, but they target very similar
audiences and hook them in the same way, by first empathizing and then
converting. It is not surprising that outsiders going to Trump rallies have
found them pretty scary, or that Trump scares many establishment Republicans.
The same is probably true within religious groups, where the radicals attract
the disaffected and terrifies the mainstream.
Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing
politics of outrage
There has recently been another terrorist attack, this time in Brussels, and
not so long after the simultaneous gun and bomb assaults in Paris, both of which
left many dead and injured, and millions horrified.
Why do they do it? It's a common cry.
Aside from martyrdom, the real reason is to escalate their cause, which is to
spread their fundamentalist religion and ultimately to destroy western
civilisation. They believe in a prophecy of Armageddon and are working to create
How do they do this? Through the politics of outrage.
The first step is to outrage
their enemy, who they largely see as western governments. This is the first
purpose of the terrorist acts. The governments of course show public outrage
(they would be castigated if they did not) and respond in
various ways, from rounding up suspects to intensifying proxy wars in regions
where those who seem to have energized the terrorists operate.
Outraged citizens may also take the law into their own hands, attacking
innocents who are seen as linked to the terrorist group, typically by religious
affiliation. The media join in too, for example pressing for total condemnation
by people of the religion and then condemning them for an insufficient response.
The terrorist organisation then amplifies and plays this back to their
potential supporters, highlighting the oppression of their people, outraging and
in the process. It's a game of
dividing and pushing either side to extremes, where outrage is used to justify
And so the cycle spins. With a few acts of barbarity, the terrorists create
huge chaos, fear and knee-jerk reaction that is food for their cause. They will
use understandable reprisals to persuade more to radicalism.
They also cause cause massive ongoing security costs and other disruption
that costs billions and so weakens their target enemies.
If we want to break this cycle of hate, outrage and reaction, we each must
step back from recrimination, even verbally so. We must try to understand
realities and beware of demonizing the innocent majority. We must work to change
minds rather than fall prey to outraged polarisation.
It may be hard, but it is the best way to peace.
The Striving Mentalist
I was on a cruise ship recently and went to a show by a young man who goes by
the stage name of 'Phoenix'. He was good, but he could have been better.
He started with a memory display where he remembered the sequence of cards in
a deck. The set up to this was messy, with getting various audience members to
split and shuffle cards. He dropped a couple of cards along the way. Was this a
part of the act? It didn't add anything so was just a minor irritation.
I got dragged up on stage for the prestige (serves me right for sitting in
the front row) as the shuffled pack was split in two and he pointed to the
person who had each card. Frustratingly, the other person got confused and
didn't remove one card, hence messing up the end of the trick ('I've got a card
left over!'). I thought this a little unkind. Don't expose the performer even if
you can see the trick. And if you are the performer, handle such events with
elegant grace, perhaps even turning into another amazing event.
He also did a good 'psychic' mind-reading trick, telling members of the
audience marvellous facts about their lives. It worked well as the people seemed
genuinely startled, though the hand-to-head 'It's coming to me' stuff was a bit
The main illusion was a complex show that involved guessing words that
members of the audience had put in an envelope. The overall trick was again done
well and I've no idea how he did it. Yet again, it could have been more
coherent, talking more and being clearer about what he was 'doing'. Audiences
need a strong story they can follow.
I think he is good but is still learning stagecraft. He made an impact on
Australia's Got Talent and is now stepping up. He referenced the UK's Derren
Brown and is clearly influenced by him. I've seen Derren who is very polished.
An illusionist friend noted that he knows how Derren does most of his tricks,
but what impresses him is the way Derren turns a relatively basic illusion into
an amazing performance.
There's an important point here for all of us. Whether you are performing or
just chatting, a key task is guiding what your audience thinks and feels. In
this, do not expect them to understand everything you say, and do not expect
them to remember what you said a minute ago. Always be clear and expect to
repeat yourself. Notice how rapt or distracted they seem as you steadily reel
them in. Only when you have their expectant attention should you deliver the
The Greatest America?
Donald Trump is still doing well, with his sweeping statements gaining
remarkable influence. Recently, he said '...we are going to make America great
again. Maybe greater than before.' Hmmm. Maybe he's on to something there.
No matter what you think of him, Trump is playing a fine game of cards,
bluffing and bamboozling his opponents and stealing their oxygen, their media
inches and minutes, with his outrageous rhetoric. He opens his mouth and
seemingly random stuff comes out, yet his audience laps it all up. Why this
happens is another conversation (go see Scott Adams' blog for neat views on
this). Today, I have a suggestion that could help him. Not that he's listening
to me, but never mind.
It's that 'great' thing. I am British, and kind of like that I live in Great
Britain, not just Britain. Why? Because it makes me feel superior. Not that this
little island is the superpower it once was, but the great name is still there
and I can still pretend. There is a similar thing in America, where it's
citizens like the feeling that it is the world's greatest place, and perhaps
feel a little rankled that it isn't as great as it once was.
This cultural desire for greatness is what Trump taps into. It's a Republican
theme in particular (hence their hawkish tendencies). So why not major on this?
Talk not just about making America great again, but push beyond to 'the
greatest'. Make this a key word. Adopt the strapline 'The Greatest America'. A
bit arrogant, perhaps? Yet tapping into deep American feelings. Which is all
And along with it all is the rubbing off of 'greatest' onto the man himself.
Step aside Muhammed Ali, here comes Donald Trump!
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