Book summary of Compelling People – The hidden qualities that make us influential By John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut



A Harvard Business School recommended reading book.

Displaying warmth with strength is key to making us more influential. Most men have perceived strength, women warmth. But we need both for successful relationship in both business and in life.

You can’t fake it. It must come from ‘inside-out’. We need to build our own self-belief that we have the skills and strategies to cope with most things that are chucked at us in life. From this inner strength of self-belief, it allows us to relax and let our warmth and strength shine through.

The book introduces us to a key concept of the inner circle: We can most effectively persuade when we are accepted ‘within the circle’ — i.e. that we have understanding and empathy for their position (warmth). Only then can our argument be listened to (strength). They define three steps: Acknowledge, Empathise then Lead.


Strength and warmth are key attributes that define the quality of our relationships with others. They have archaic roots, dating back to our pre-ancestors (friend or foe)?. These reactions still happen today (research suggests we decide the warmth of another person in 1/10th of a second). Also we can be strong in some areas and weak in others. Both can be developed and improved.


Warmth is the perception someone cares for us. They listen, understand us, even empathise with us.

We distrust people’s motives who lack warmth. They put us on our guard and we try to avoid them.

Warmth ironically comes from strength. If we feel strong and able to cope, we are able to feel much more relaxed, and so allow the warmth to naturally exude. If we feel threatened, our warmth is hidden away. Again we need to build warmth inside out. No amount of ‘faking’ it will hide how we really feel about a person. If we want to be warm towards someone we need to focus on what we like about them (ignoring what we do not like).


Strong people exude a sense of inner ability, strength and confidence. We can be influenced by them and follow them (so they are often in leadership positions). But strength alone is not the key to leadership. Without the warmth we may respect them, but we may not like nor trust them.

A lot of strength derives from testosterone. Higher levels leads to increased confidence, risk taking and aggression. Cortisol counterbalances testosterone (Cortisol being the chemical of anxiety) undermining our confidence. Conversely, testosterone can act as an inhibitor of Oxytocin (one of the key chemicals of warmth).

Warmth with Strength

We need both to be effective. Too much Strength creates fear, distrust and separation. Too much warmth creates a perception of weakness.

Relative and contextual qualities of Strength and Warmth – These qualities are relative. A person might be warmer than another, but colder than a third person. Likewise, if someone is perceived as ‘strong’ then they are likely to be also perceived to be ‘less warm’. Indeed, if two people are going for a job, one will be unconsciously labelled ‘the strong’ one and the other ’the warm’ one.

Warmth and strength are contextual. We want more warmth in social situations and more strength in the workplace

Stereotypes – We make instant assessments of people on this Strength/Warmth matrix. We will assess people through our own personal historic perspective. If we favour one over the other, this will influence what we see. Men are presumed strong (and colder), Women are presumed warm (and weaker). Both sexes get rewarded and accepted for this dominant trait. It’s more acceptable for a man to demonstrate dominant behaviour and for a woman to be more emotional.

When we break these stereotyped expectations we are often seen as an outsider, a maverick — even odd (cf David Bowie). Culturally, there appears to be greater tolerance of men being warmer than women being stronger. Women who are strong are seen as cold, callous and often resentful. Thus, society can ‘punish’ people for breaking conventions. Conversely, when a man becomes a father they gain the added kudos of increased warmth (without it affecting their perception of strength).

Many American’s disliked Hilary Clinton’s strength (at one time she was the butt of more jokes than anyone else and was nicknamed ‘Chillary’). The most profound shift came during the New Hampshire primaries when she demonstrated a vulnerability not previously displayed (“So as tired as I am — and I am…and as difficult as it is to carry on…”)

Building Relationships – The book suggests three strategies:

Strategy #1 – Be assertive, but not angry – Anger is not an expression of strength but a sign of weakness (as out of control). Assertiveness is about responding, where the feelings are contained and channeled.

Strategy #2 – Getting tough for the sake of good of others – There are very few incidences where anger is condoned (especially with women) but one of them is where the person is standing up for others (rather than for themselves) on things like values or higher level principles — thus, a person is allowed to be strong when it is a selfless act.

Strategy #3 – Dial up the warmth, not tone it down – Our current society is increasingly valuing warmth. The book suggests that we need to amp up our opposite force if we want to be effective. If we want to increase our perception of strength, we need to increase our warmth. Strength comes from warmth. Warmth comes from strength.

Factors that drive perception of our strength and warmth

There are many aspects that help define our perceived strength and warmth, many we can play with to improve our perceived strength and warmth. For example, Culture, Sex, Race, Age, Body shape, Gait, Energy levels, Facial movements/shape, Eye movements, Language, Tonality, Accents, etc are all cues that we unconsciously pick up on as to a person’s strength and warmth. A few specifics worth mentioning:

Cultural differences – We also need to be aware of cultural sensitivities. What is appropriate in one market would be very wrong elsewhere, or with a different person/age/sex/religious persuasion?

Colour – Sadly, black women in positions of authority have little room for error (as they break the socio-sexual conventions). It appears Black women leaders are criticised more than black men or white women.

Stereotypes – Stereotypes stick, hence the headline, ‘Why Obama doesn’t dare become the angry black man’. Martin Luther King’s non violent protest was driven by his understanding that angry (black) people give away their respect and hence influence when they appear to ‘lose control’. Dignity and restraint are always more powerful weapons against mis-justice.

Disability – Disability can swing both ways. On the surface it projects weakness. However, the resilience and perseverance of overcoming a disability is often seen as a great strength.

Body shape – Body movement likewise convey a lot. If a person feels weak and anxious, they tend to lean away, cross their arms, shrink their shoulders, rub their hands together or touch their face. In this sense the body cannot lie well. We are unconsciously communicating all the time.

Posture – The military and ballet both teach people the fundamental importance of strong posture. Research has shown that merely adopting different postures can change our emotions (as seen by levels of testosterone)

Gait – A relaxed, longer, graceful gait with head up and shoulders back all adds height and hence stature (versus a short, pacy gait, with the head low, and shoulders cramped over).

Hand movements – The weak handshake (with no eye contact) creates a poor first impression. Likewise, limp wrists suggest weakness. Karate chops and pointing demonstrate strength. The warmest hand gesture is arms open wide, palms up (literally welcoming with open arms). Similarly the most powerful hand position is to metaphorically cup a ball between our waists and hips, slightly held away from the body.

Touch – Touch is a sign of warmth/confidence. Modern day cultures (of fist hits, chest bashing etc) are also signs of warmth/strength.

Face – There are 43 muscles in the face and so is the best place for displaying warmth or strength. Ekman found that we all share the same facial expressions for various emotional states — irrespective of our cultural backgrounds. A grimace or head position (e.g., ’looking down our nose’ at others) reduces perceived warmth but may increase strength cues. Conversely, a slight head tilt to one side increases warmth. Likewise, soft eyes and a wide longer lasting smile (we can all detect a fake smile as the eyes need to smile as well).

Eye contact – Eye contact is a critical way to convey both strength and warmth. When people cannot hold eye contact for long it suggests diffidence. A high status person of strength may use lack of eye contact to convey disdain (to further build their superiority). That said, in many parts of Asia, too much eye contact can also signal lack of respect.

Voice – The voice conveys a lot of emotion. Again different pitches, loudness, tonality, fluidness, and speed all provide cues to a person’s warmth and strength. The advice is that when we want to hit home with a key thought, to slow down and really enunciate the words with a slightly raised voice.

Words – Agreeing with another person’s and using their same words helps build warmth (disagreeing is often seen as a sign of strength/power play). Overuse of filler words (such as “umm” and “you know..”) detracts from a person’s perceived strength. Using “we” conveys warmth, whilst “I” suggests strength.

Language – We can bolster our verbal strength through a number of language techniques. Use of metaphors/analogies demonstrate our verbal prowess; as does deductive thinking (through the use of ‘If..then…’ etc). Other techniques include repetition, alliteration and word play (especially if locked into patterns of three: “Of the people; by the people; for the people”). Famous quotations also helps project an aura of knowledge and hence strength.

Humour & Storytelling – Storytelling as well as humour are powerful influencers as they combine warmth and strength. Research has indicated that we are wired for stories. They are easier to remember and a joy to hear. Yet they both carry hidden inner meaning that gets absorbed straight into the unconscious mind.

Inside-out – These non-verbal cues are hard to mask, so it’s best not to try to fake it. In reality, we need an inside-out approach. Only if we feel authentically warm to another person, or internally confident, will the non-verbal cues be aligned.

Assessing our warmth/strength

We believe our success comes from our own innate skills and that our failures come from external factors.

Self analysis – We need to undertake a bit of self analysis. Look at photos of yourself (especially the more natural ones). How do you come across? If you met a person with that look, what would you assume they would be like? Also ask friends, relatives and work colleagues. Quickly you will start to build up a profile of where you lie on the two axes. The reality is we are all imperfect — but that does not mean we cannot improve.

Confidence – We do not need to be totally free of all issues in the past to raise our self-confidence but we do need to be able to manage better our emotions. To do this, we need to re-examine the meaning we put on events/people, so we can react in a more ‘adult’ manner. It is recommended to ‘future pace’ events that could come up to practice how we would react. Many top sportspeople use visualisation techniques to better master their future performance. When unsure, we need to refocus on the task and why it is important for us. This adds greater resolve. Another technique is to take bite size chunks, starting first on smaller interventions, to slowly build up our confidence. The more often we ‘cope,’ the greater we build our belief system that we can cope again in the future with bigger, more threatening situations.


The best way to persuade is from the inside in person’s safety circle. The authors propose three steps: Acknowledge, Empathise and then Lead.

The circle

When Robert Kennedy heard the news of Matin Luther King’s death, he gave a powerful speech that quelled the anger and violence in the city of Indianapolis.

1) Acknowledge – Kennedy first acknowledged their feelings. He said, “You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred and a desire for revenge”. In other words, he connected with where they were right now (you can only move people if you acknowledge where they are right now).

2) Empathise – It’s not good enough to just acknowledge how they feel. We need to the say how we also share the same feelings. Kennedy identified with them (referencing how his own family had suffered murders by white men). By doing this he put himself inside the circle — to be with them, not outside of them. He found a shared point of connection so they saw him as part of them. Hence the circle. People will only listen to people they see to be ‘inside the circle’. So people will see us as either inside the circle or outside it. Bringing our own real life experiences here is critical. ’I know how you feel – I have been there myself’ is in essence what we need to convey to be listened to. Thus we first connect through warmth. The heart needs to open to make the ears open. If Kennedy had started from a place of strength, and tried to suggest a different interpretation of the events he would have been lynched. We often make this mistake by leading on strength but this alienates. Only through humility and empathy can we build the rapport necessary to allow us to later-on start to lead with advice (i.e. Pace. Pace. Pace…then lead).

3) Lead. Only after building rapport couldKennedy then start making suggestions of the type of country America needed to become. Obama did the same. On one occasion, Obama was arguing against the second amendment. First he got inside the circle by acknowledging the right of Americans to carry a gun. He then cleverly pushed the NRA out of the circle by suggesting the NRA was not like them (“They believe any constraint or regulation whatsoever is something they have to beat back. And I don’t think that is how most firearm owners think”.)

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “ The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows without a shadow of doubt what is laid before him”. Thus we must first start with their ‘map of reality’. This is particularly effective if they assume we have a counter point of view.

This also stops the argument (as when argument starts, persuasion stops as argument just pushes us back into our corners). MRI scans show how we only pick up on messages that supports our point of view (We see what we believe – Ed). The best way to persuade, is to keep things non- confrontational (because as soon as the lines are drawn, the barriers come up). Keep pointing out the common ground. We need to keep warmth high, to allow the strength of our argument to be heard.

Strength and warmth in the world

Work – People are unconsciously cultured into the strength mantra in their workplace, suppressingany emotions and so (often mistakenly) giving up on warmth. We are beginning to see a shift towards warmth, especially in the newer start up companies.

Managing others – In managing others it is better to do so from a place of warmth not strength. Warmth is a more respectful and conducive way to get things done — not threats and aggression.

Sales – Salesmen often use both strength and warmth to get the sale. They start all warm, then become tough.

Marketing – Brands likewise try to project a clear personality that often lies on the strength versus warmth matrix (cf Ariel = strength, Persil warmth – Ed).

When things go wrong – It requires warmth of humility and contrition, followed quickly by the strength of how we are going to resolve the situation.


Many men find happiness to be the most important trait in women, and women find confidence to be the most important trait in men (put in another way: confidence makes a man look attractive and warmth makes a female attractive). Woman want a man to project strength (warm strength not aggressive strength). Men want warmth from women.

A lot of this is conveyed through non verbal cues when we first meet someone. A smile starts a conversation. It says, ‘I’m safe’. The unspoken rule for women is to be the gatekeeper at every stage. She ‘allows’ progression to the next stage; whilst the man’s role is to proactively knock on every gate to be invited through. The man pushes his luck and the women sits in judgment of his efforts until she is won over. Whilst this is becoming more fluid, it is still more common than the reversal of these roles. The role of the man to make the move is actually about him demonstratinghis strength through confidence and courage: Fortune favours the bold.

When men are attracted to another person, they often adopt peacock like positions: Chest out, standing tall or spreading wide to demonstrate their strength and stature. The female response is conversely one of weakness: falling under the ‘strength’ signals to express unconsciously her ‘acquiescence’ — the bashful pose, head cocked to one side, eyes dropped into submission (called the ‘duck and peek’), or even at a later stage ‘bedroom eyes’. The classic exposing the neck when the head goes down is a classic sign of ‘submission’ to a more dominant force. The other alternative is extended eye contact (that can suggest both strength and warmth) and of course touch.

Negotiators on the other hand want everyone to get along (often sacrificing personal wants). They are good listeners and very attentive to other people’s feelings. They avoid conflict and can acquiesce — hence they are seen to be high on warmth but low on strength. Fischer found that Explorers tend to make better long term partners with other Explorers. Likewise, Builders. However, Directors tend to get on better with Negotiators (and vice versa).

On the rocks – Gottman from Washington devised a test that led to a 95% accuracy in predicting if couples would be together still after 15 years. It appears there are four ‘deadly horsemen’ that led to failed relationships: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Criticism creates counter criticism, leading to defensiveness, which then leads to the person essentially ignoring the other person. Stonewalling shows lack of respect (by refusing to acknowledge the other person and their point of view). The final deadly twist is contempt, as the body language screams out, “I hate you!”. Conversely, a lot of long-term relationships are built on mutual respect and trust.

Child rearing – There appears to be two different models of child rearing (often linked to different cultures and generations). There is the strength model. Maintaining strict rules and discipline, with little room for love, and positive support. Then there is the much more liberal, permissive empathetic approach. Both can lead to ill-balanced children. However, it is suggested there is a middle ground called authoritative parenting — it’s both warmth and strength together. To pull this off, parents need to first learn how to manage their own emotions (as kids model their parent’s behaviour).


If we feel strong, we do not feel threatened and so can relax and be warm. Strength comes from confidence in our ability. Warmth helps us connect. For us to fully engage with others, we need first to be strong inside. There is a great power when both warmth and strength work together. People then have ‘presence’. We have deeper relationships with those around us and achieve much more. This results in a positive spiral up.


This is one of those books whose simplicity is alluring, but when we peak behind the curtain, we realise it’s just a clever ‘top dressing’ that masks a mass of complexity. So many factors influence both of these qualities. Hence the ‘solution’ (i.e., how do I become warmer and/or stronger) is equally complex and opaque. The reality is this notion of ‘inside-out’ probably takes years with a Psychotherapist than an afternoon with this book.

This is a ‘light’ book. It is full of common truths that at best bore, and at worse irritate (such as the long winded section about face, hair, voice, clothes, shoes etc). I honestly can say I did not enjoy reading this book.

The circle idea is, I think, the strongest concept in this book.

Like so many books, it falls into the trap of trying to support its hypothesis by demonstrating its ubiquity across everywhere. The trouble with this strategy is often they start skating on thin ice. Instead of adding further support to their theory it starts to undermine it.

About slooowdown

Consultant in the fields of Relationships and Change
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1 Response to Book summary of Compelling People – The hidden qualities that make us influential By John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut

  1. Pingback: Becoming more of an Influencer

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