Why Donald Trump Talks the Way He Does – and Why It Works

Back in college, I made some halfway decent money selling high end knives in people’s homes. One of the perks of the job was that the company provided us with some pretty high quality training in sales, time management, motivation and the like. The managers were big fans of people like Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie and Steven Covey and took turns giving talks sharing what they were learning from them with us. While the company’s business model was actually kind of bullshit, the training has served me well over the years.

Like at one of our training events, a manager explained that human beings have these things called mirror cells in our brains. And these mirror cells cause us to instinctively imitate each other. This is why small children imitate the people around them and why we are so susceptible to peer pressure – our brains are programmed and have special cells dedicated to the task of imitation. Further, these mirror cells are closely associated with empathy which in turn leads to bonding and a sense of closeness with another human being.

And then he explained a little trick which we could use to exploit this feature of human neurology/psychology in order to gain control of a situation with another person. If you match a person’s emotional energy levels, this tends to activate their mirror neurons. Because you’re mirroring their energy. Once you’ve done this, you have activated the brain’s automatic impulse to imitate and can actually lead the person into the emotional state you want them to be in. So if a person comes in panicking and you initial response is to match their state of panic, you can then gently de-escalate your own emotional energy to a calmer state and the person will usually instinctively follow your lead and calm down much more quickly than if you try to calm them down directly. It’s a nifty trick if you’re a decent person simply looking to help someone in distress, encourage someone or otherwise positively influence them.

Or you can, as my manager explained, use this trick to sell people knives. All you have to do is match their emotional energy and they will instinctively respond positively to you and more easily follow your lead. Nod when they nod, smile when they smile, mirror back their body language and everything in their instinctive brain will be telling them to like and trust you. The trick is particularly helpful when dealing with objections since you start by agreeing with the objection which is unexpected so any defense they have prepared will be sidestepped while the mirror reaction is activate. Then you can often lead them from that point of resistance to the point of saying yes.

Like I said, nifty trick. Unless you don’t actually want or can’t afford high end knives. Then you might think it’s a dirty trick. But probably not. People really hate to admit when they’ve been manipulated into acting against their best interests. So more often than not, customers who bought knives they didn’t actually want or couldn’t afford will set about justifying their decision to purchase knives to themselves and anyone who attempts to chastise them. They will recall the times they meant to start cooking more and decide that the knives are perfect for making that happen. They will admire the various features I pointed out to them and repeat the benefits I showed them to themselves while using them. In fact, everyone in the house will know why the handle is shaped the way it is because the person who bought them will tell anyone who will listen about it. They will push away any thoughts of the expense by reminding themselves that these knives are a once in a lifetime investment that they will use everyday if they actually start cooking like they always meant to. And they will remember all the items they wanted but didn’t purchase to assure themselves that they were actually quite restrained and frugal when in fact I had just sold a $70 knife to people who literally didn’t own furniture.

So what does this have to do with the way Donald Trump talks and why it works? Well, the thing is the dynamic I describe above is well known to most sociopaths. In fact, it’s a tactic that the most skilled of them uses at all times. People who have spent time close to or studied sociopaths often note that they seem to be acting all the time. The reason is that these people habitually mirror the emotional states of people around them in order to maintain their control over their interactions with them. Because there is literally nothing more important to a sociopath than being in control. Nothing. So they use this little hack to influence the people around them, except because they are sociopaths, they don’t really care if they are using it for good or ill. Their only objective is to cultivate their influence over others. Which will sometimes line up with what is actually good for the people around them and sometimes not. It doesn’t particularly matter to someone like Trump, just so long as he gets what he wants which is control.

Donald Trump talks the way he does because the point of his speech isn’t to convey information or make an argument. On occasion he may flirt with doing those things, but the real purpose of their speech is to activate those mirror neurons. He basically made a bet that he could use this strategy to gain the support of a particular type of person (what my husband calls the NASCAR nation – relatively affluent, proud redneck or wanna be redneck types who revel in being defiant). Yes, he’s telling them things they want to hear, but even more he’s reflecting their emotional state back at them and then manipulating it for his own purposes. Basically, the purpose of his speech is to create an emotional experience in the people he is speaking to.

The thing is that when we are “in our emotions”, our hippo-campus isn’t fully engaged. Our bullshit meter goes offline. Same thing with our problem solving skills. Our short term memory is altered, as is the process for creating long term memories. We are literally in an altered mental state at that point. So by basically pushing the buttons to put people into their emotions and then rambling in a way that makes it hard for his audience’s hippo-campus to find something to latch onto, he’s using a classic conman’s trick to gain control over his audience without them even realizing what happened.

And lest you think I’m exaggerating, making things up and attributing ill will to harmless behavior, I can personally testify to this effect. I’ve inadvertently done it myself with public speaking and training where have I caught myself momentarily rambling and not making sense and nobody even noticed. I would catch myself spewing out gibberish, talking in circles and look out into the audience and realize that no one looked confused or doubtful. And if I actually stopped and corrected myself, very few people would even remember the details of any of the rubbish I had just spouted. They were just on the emotional roller coaster I was creating for them.

Anyways, I think Trump has been practicing this form of manipulation for his own ends forever. Not everyone is prone to falling for it, but many people are. Those who are prone to falling for it think he’s a good guy because he makes them feel good. Those who aren’t think he’s a lunatic because he’s clearly talking gibberish. But those who are falling for it are in the same position that the people who didn’t actually want and couldn’t afford fancy knives were. They’re not going to admit that they’ve been emotionally manipulated. They’re busy shoring up their own evidence and justifications for what is the political equivalent of buying a $70 dollar knife while living in a house with no furniture.

And, it must be said that often the difference between those who are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and those who aren’t lie in the types of buttons being pushed. One person is vulnerable to flattery and another is vulnerable to tough guy talk. Sociopaths are very good at recognizing the difference so they can push the right buttons with the right person. Trump went for easy targets whose foibles he understands quite well, but don’t be so sure that if he had decided that some other audience – possibly one that you belong to – would give him what he wanted, he wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing to them (or you).

So, how do you protect yourself from being manipulated by a sociopath (or a sales person) like Trump? First, you take signs that there’s something shady going on seriously rather than writing them off. Plausible deniability is the last refuge of the sociopath. They count on you ignoring red flags because you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. So be sparing with the benefit of the doubt. People who genuinely deserve the benefit of the doubt are quite willing to provide evidence to support their claim to it. People who are trying to manipulate you will behave as if they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. They will accuse you of being a bad person or uncharitable if you attempt to withhold it from them. Again, this is markedly different from how people who actually deserve the benefit of the doubt typically behave.

Second, get your own boundaries really clear in your head and don’t let yourself make excuses for walking past them. Be stubborn up front rather than on the back end after you’ve already fallen for some bull. For example, if you believe in equality, remain committed to equality even in the face of evidence which can be interpreted in such a way that it undermines equality. Trust that there is a better explanation for what you see than one which undermines equality. Give yourself credit and trust what your own judgment says when you’re not in the presence of someone who is trying to influence you. Which leads to my 3rd tip . . .

Don’t just tell yourself that you won’t fall for someone’s influence – you will. We are all susceptible at some level to influence. It’s part of our design – remember the mirror neurons? And it’s not a bad thing that we are able to be influenced by others. But get really clear on your own beliefs, values and principles so that once the thrall has worn off, you have a baseline you can return to. Once you’re back at your baseline, you can consider the arguments that made sense to you and adjust if appropriate. But you want to do that when you’re not “in your emotions” and your hippo-campus is fully engaged. (Interestingly, people who focus on social justice are less emotional in their thinking than people who are unmoved by injustice. So if you want to be sure you’re not just “in your emotions”, focus on helping those down the ladder from you. It will snap you out of it.)

As to what to do about those who have fallen for Trump’s mind games, well, they are likely beyond our influence, much less our control at this point. I’ll explain more on that later. They’re just not playing the same game that we are, so to speak. You can try the nifty trick of matching their emotions on them. It’s not fool proof. And everyone’s busy re-assuring themselves that they really did make a very good decision that they totally do not regret. But it does tap into something pretty innate in us. So it will likely work as well as anything else, although it does take some practice to do well.

“I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” ~ Matthew 10:16

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Falling Together

Everyone I know is at least a little worried about me. And I can understand why. I have long moments when I am completely certain that I have lost my mind. I am continually sick and am in pain on a daily basis. I can barely keep up with my minimum standards that I rely on to keep my children from showing up at school looking and smelling like they might have spent the night in a homeless shelter.

At least the money situation’s looking up. My husband was laid off – again. So he’s using the severance package he got to pay the bills while he gets a new business he was asked to be CEO of off the ground. And without the costs of a daily commute, we’re even paying the utility’s down! Yay us!

Anyhow, I suppose I can understand why people are a bit worried about me. But I have the very distinct feeling of having just fallen together. Which really looks an awful lot like falling apart and is at least as scary.

Those of you who have been reading my writing for a while may have noticed an ongoing theme that I touch on from time to time which I believe the technical term for is “abject misery”. Or maybe you were fooled by the occasional off colored joke. I can be pretty good at hiding my true feelings sometimes. But you know, I may have given off a few telltale signs.

Anyhow, the truth is that what is alarming about me and my life right now are the same things that are letting me know that I’m coming together rather than apart. I’m finally safe enough to let go of the last threads of my sanity so that the mess that my life is can finally be redeemed. I’ve never been (or felt) this safe before. I’m finally able let myself fall apart, confident that God has placed people around me that I needed to survive and come out the other side as something other than a crazy bag lady and drug addict.

(Yes, that is an actual picture of me writing with a child sitting on my shoulders.)

(Yes, that is an actual picture of me writing with a child sitting on my shoulders.)

I’m sure that as time goes on, I’ll be able to share more about the process, which I learned a great deal from. But that’s like a book and I’m ready to tap out at about the 400 word mark here. However, I did discover what’s behind my super amazing ability to write with a child on my shoulders. It’s not nearly as amusing as that picture of Olivia sitting on my shoulders, unfortunately. It turns out that along with depression and a history of PTSD, I have a dissociative disorder that dates back to before I could talk.

Which is yet another reason I’m making the people around me nervous. Unlike other mental health problems, dissociative disorders don’t have any genetic basis. They are always the result of trauma and are almost certainly much more widespread than is commonly thought. Many people who have them are completely unaware of the fact that they are having problems.

The most severe type of dissociative disorder is dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder. You know – 1 woman, 69 personalities. The very definition of shockingly crazy. Fortunately, I don’t have that. My various personalities all know they aren’t real and are serving in a strictly advisory capacity.

Looking back, I can see that I have a history of overcoming the problem and making it work somehow. Like being able to write with a kid on my shoulders. For me, the biggest problem is the way it affects my memory and attention when I am not in control of it. Like when I have to ask my kids to repeat themselves 4 or 5 times because Mommy can’t focus on what they are saying at all. Or when I send out a post without a title again.

A dissociative disorder is always alarming because of it’s roots in severe trauma and the fact that it’s associated with a lot of negative life outcomes, some of which I have experienced. But mostly, when I learned that I have a dissociative disorder, I felt like I was being given permission to own my cool super power.

Well, that’s what I feel like in between the times when I think I’ve lost my grip on reality and have to go to my husband for reassurances that our children aren’t in any danger of being removed from our care because of me. Which is progress. I spent most of July and August asking him how he can be so sure that none of the kids is laying in bed at night wishing they were dead. Which might alarm some people, I suppose. But it’s just part of the process. It’s an ugly process, but at least now I understand what’s happening.

At any rate, as I mentioned above, I was showing signs of this problem at an age when I could barely talk. Between the ages of 1 and 3, I frequently displayed signs of having withdrawn entirely from my surroundings and sometimes from my main caregiver for extended periods. This is usually considered the worst case scenario for a child who has experienced trauma – that he or she would withdraw so completely that they would come to find their own internal reality much more interesting and engaging than the world around them. (And yes, I know for a fact that some of you just thought, “well, it is!” And you’re right. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to get there. Severe childhood trauma is the wrong way.)

As it turns out, I seem to have withdrawn deep enough to find God in my inner most being. And he led me back out again. Then when I was ready, he lead me back into the abyss so I could take back all those bits and pieces of my heart that got left behind along the way. But I’ve shared about as much as I have time and energy for today.

So yes, I know that I am alarming people. I know that I’ve alarmed some of you readers as I occasionally hear from a few of you expressing concern. And I’m so glad for that. It lets me know that I am seen. That I’m no longer buried so deep that I feel invisible. And it reminds me that there are plenty of people who can respond to someone in pain with compassion. Which can be easy to lose sight of in this world. But I’m still here. And so are you.

And now let’s listen to a pretty song about how it’s all going to be alright. Because it is. And now I know it. Praise God.

If you’re falling together, these are for you, btw:

For When You Can’t Function

Getting By On Manna

How the Dark Night of the Soul Is Like a Juice Cleanse

Can God Do What He Says He Will Do?

You’re So Sensitive!

The Gift of Delayed Grief

Promote Yourself!

I love my dad, but he was the source of the worst bit of advice I’ve ever recieved (and unfortunately believed for a long time!).  He told me that if you were really remarkable or doing something well, you wouldn’t need to go around tooting your own horn because if it was really that great, other people would notice it for themselves.  Sigh.  If only I could get back the years that I spent believing that.  I have a huge list of things I would do differently and it would have saved me from many long years of sometimes crippling self-doubt.  (And I’m not pinning that on my dad!  No parent should be held accountable for how their child takes every utterance that a parent makes duing their 18 years raising a kid!)

I’ve been in the process of unlearning this bad advice for a while now, so I was happy to see this article on a study done about self-promotion.  It found that people who were working to put forward an authentic, positive presentation of themselves were actually percieved more accurately by others than people who didn’t.  From the article:

Those who actively tried to self-present were perceived more positively, and perceptions of their personality and intelligence (averaged across 24 items) were closer to their true (or measured) personality and intelligence than those who weren’t actively trying to self-present. Perceivers were also better able to detect differences in personality and intelligence among those in the positive-self presentation group compared to those in the non self-presentation group. In other words, receivers found it more difficult figuring out the personality and intelligence of those who weren’t actively trying to deliver a positive self-presentation.

IOW, not only is tooting your own horn not necessarily a bad thing, it’s probably a necessary thing for others to develop an accurate view of who we are.  I still struggle with this and often feel misunderstood as a result, so I particularly appreciate getting some re-assurances that it’s OK to show people just how wonderful I actually am!  ;p

For those of us who struggle with this, there is also this:

Prior research shows that when people are motivated to advance their own agenda, they are able to override an initial negative bias. If you are a shy individual who finds yourself extremely reactive to the initial reactions of others, take heart to know that their initial perceptions can be overriden by taking control of the situation and showing them your best and true self. Don’t take things at face value and walk away in defeat. You can control the interaction. Hang in there!

Yay!  That’s excellent news to me as well.  Even if you are shy and neurotic like I often feel, there’s always a good way forward. 

Anyhow, as you can see, this article made me happy.  Thankfully, it doesn’t take much! 🙂

HT: Hoagies Gifted Education Page for the link!

Tolerance and Boundaries

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject of boundaries came up.  Everyone she knows, my friend told me, struggles with setting appropriate boundaries with people.  I told her that I am not perfect at it, but I do a pretty good job with setting boundaries.  She wanted to know how I do it, but seemed less enthused when I told her the secret: you have to be completely willing to let other people be wrong.  I’m not sure why it is, but we humans seem to have a real problem even contemplating simply tolerating each other’s errors.  We feel like it’s very important to do our part to teach the people around us how to be better people (according to our own understanding of what would make someone a better person, of course).  So, we are upset (rightfully) when people think they know what is good for us and try to impose their view on us.  But we’d really like to reserve the right to do the same thing to those around us.  I would guess that some of this is just deeply ingrained human habit. After all, for most of human history we spent our time with very clear-cut rules, roles and expectations.  Now that we have so much more freedom to make our own choices and judgments, we’re busy stepping all over each other’s toes and we’re just figuring out how to deal with not just our own freedom, but each other’s.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not our job or our right to  evalute other people.  Not to mention that it’s terribly pointless.  How often do we stop to think of how someone will respond to our attempt to point them in the right direction.  And not how we think someone should respond, but how people actually do respond.  I mean, if you can show me one gay person who decided to repent and not be gay because they were told that God says its an abomination, I will eat one of my children.  It’s never happened.  It’s not going to happen.  It probably can’t happen.  The same thing is true of our odds of changing anything about any other person by making it clear just how wrong they are.

People will try and argue that they have a right or an obligation to point out the right path because these are paths that lead to destruction or hurt people around them.  We can be right as anything about the damage someone could  potentially do to themselves or others, but arguing, lecturing, shunning or otherwise trying to show another their error or the superiority of your way doesn’t do anything about that!  As hard as it can be to accept, we have to learn to let other people find their own way.  We can share our perspectives, but it must be with the understanding that the other person is under no obligation to accept them without damaging the relationship.

And yes, people will make mistakes and even hurt other people.  This is the way life is.  You cannot change or really do much to even influence this reality.  Hopefully, people will learn from their mistakes.  But one way to make that much more difficult than it needs to be is to let them know ahead of time that they are idiots who are making a huge mistake.  It’s hard enough to be wrong.  It can be next to impossible if being wrong means making someone who doesn’t respect you or approve of you right.

So, here’s the deal on how to set boundaries:

1. Recognize where your boundaries begin and end.  Your own boundaries begin and end between your ears and with your body.  This is yours to control, evaluate, change and direct to your heart’s content.  Really, it takes a lot of nerve to try and direct other people when you can’t even direct yourself well!

2. Recognize the limits of your influence.  We have a few people who we are supposed to influence.  They are our children.  We have a few more people who have agreed to allow us to influence (but not direct or control).  These would be our spouses, friends and some family members.  Other people don’t owe it to us to hear our arguments out, take our evaluations of them seriously or change to be more acceptable to us – no matter how superior our arguments, evaluations and directions may be.  In fact, other people are well within their rights to treat such attempts as an assault on their sovereignty over their own lives.

3. Don’t take anything personally.  You are captain of your own life and keeper of your own soul.  As is everyone else.  What people do or say is all about them and nothing about you.  Even if they are directing what they say or do towards you, it is still coming out of who they are.  So let people have their own opinions – even about you.  This also has the benefit of being able to listen and hear any words of wisdom coming your way that you would normally miss because of your indignation.

4. Once you have a good idea of where your own boundaries ought to be, it is much easier to both recognize when someone is trying to violate your boundaries and not to let it bother you.  The big thing that I think boundaries do is help us identify what are our problems and what are other people’s problems.  If someone doesn’t like the way you are doing something and it doesn’t involve them, they are the one with a problem, not you.  If someone wants you to do something for them, that is their desire and responsibility, not yours.  You may still choose to help them out, but it’s your choice and not your obligation.  If someone is upset over something you did or chose, that’s both their right and their problem.  We shouldn’t carelessly do things that people find hurtful, but the reality is that our reactions and emotions are our own responsibility.

Learning to respect the boundaries of others and keep our own is the real core of tolerance.  It doesn’t require us to give up our own opinions or values, but it does require us to accept that the right of those around us to be wrong.  The reward is not having others trying to tell you who you should be or how you should live your life.  That’s God’s job alone and he does a much better job of it than your average mother-in-law!