Vanessa Van Edwards Author Interview

Portrait of Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is Lead Investigator at Science of People; she focuses on helping people to develop tangible skills to improve interpersonal communication and leadership, and to communicate more effectively with colleagues, clients and customers.

She’s the bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Amazon, Bookshop), and now she has a new book: Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn’t wait to talk to Vanessa about happiness, habits, and communication.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Vanessa: Every day I deal with people. Much like you, I deal with people on Zoom, over email, in my kitchen, at the grocery store and in tiny texts, nods and slacks. And every day I am learning. A few years ago, I began to write down my “People Learnings” in a journal. When I discovered something interesting about people or a specific person, I wrote it down. Here are some from the last month:

“People tend to criticize others with the faults they themselves wrestle with.”

“Unsolicited advice does not feel helpful. Before giving advice ask if someone wants help or just a kind ear to listen.”

“Seeing my old friend Rob makes me feel really good.”

And every time I re-learn one or experience one again, I give it a “point” in the margin. In this way, I have begun to discover all kinds of people patterns. Namely, who in my life fills me and makes me better. Who drains me. What people boundaries are working for me…and which are not. Do you have a place where you can keep your people learnings?

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Busy does not equal happiness. I used to think a busy day was a successful day. I thought being busy made me feel good, capable, and productive. As I have gotten older I have realized that busy just keeps you from feeling anything too deeply. It distracts you from bad, it doesn’t take it away. I like slow days. Slow days allow me to feel good, bad, and in between and that, in the long run makes me happy. 

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
Our cues are contagious. In our research we have very clearly discovered that the cues you send to others through our body language, vocal patterns, face and words not only change people’s perceptions of us, they change how people feel themselves. For example, if you make an angry face (furrowed brow, hardened lower eye lids, tense lips), people around you are likely to perceive you as irritated and angry. But they are also likely to ‘catch’ this face. When we see an angry face we, without realizing it, also activate the muscles that furrow or brows, harden our lids and tense our lips and this triggers our own anger. This is why you can walk out of a meeting in a totally unexplained funk—you might have caught someone else’s funk. Or why one bad apple can spoil the bunch. Being aware of your cues is not only essential for you and how you show up in the world, they are also incredibly important for how you impact and change the world itself! We have discovered 97 cues and counting. (All in Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication.)

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I used to stand with one arm over my stomach and the other tightly pressed to my side. I think it was a protective gesture that I developed when I was anxious in school. It made me look small. It made me feel small. I read research that ‘blocking’ or closed body language can actually make you feel more close-minded. It also makes you look more closed to meeting and connecting with others. So I set out to change it—and it was so hard! Standing with my arms loosely by my side almost made me feel…naked! Exposed! It was truly shocking how hard that change was nonverbally. But I did notice that the ‘nakedness’ did make me feel a bit more daring, more open, more inviting. And I had better conversations, better connections. It took a few weeks, but the exposed feeling moved into confidence. I now know that open body means open mind.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I remember watching an interview with Lance Armstrong on Larry King Live many years ago. And Armstrong was insisting he never doped or used performance enhancing drugs. And I remember watching the interview and having the strongest feeling in my gut—this guy is lying. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I knew something was off. Then a few years later he admitted to a massive undercover doping scheme. This was like a lightning bolt. I went back and re-watched the interview. Again and again. I slowed it down. I watched it backwards. I coded every single cue that he sent in that interview and then, in my lab, I dove into the research of each. Sure enough a few seconds into one of his lies he did a cue called a lip purse—where you press your lips into a hard line. This cue is a nonverbal sign of withholding. Literally you press your lips together as if to hold something in. It is THE CUE my brain subconsciously picked up on when he lied. It was the start of many years of research into the hidden language of cues. It made me realize there is a hidden language being spoken all around us and our gut can be incredibly accurate if we know what we are reading. It was the spark of 10 years of research. We analyzed 495 Shark Tank pitches looking at hidden cues (why do some pitches get investment and other’s fail?). We analyzed thousands of hours of TED Talks looking for hidden cues (why do some TED Talks go viral and others don’t?). We even watched the last 20 US Presidential inaugural addresses looking for Presidential patterns. Thank goodness for that Lance Armstrong lip purse!

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Many people worry that you have to be born with charisma and that you either have it or you don’t. A myth I would like to bust is that ANYONE can learn how to be charismatic and it does not mean you have to fake being an extrovert. Research has found there is a formula to charisma and it is that highly charismatic people have a potent blend of warmth and competence. Dialing up these two traits is what helps people see you as trustworthy AND capable, as friendly AND impressive and as likable AND powerful. You do not have to sacrifice one for the other and you do not have to fake extroversion to be charismatic.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.