Car driving analogy of conversational confidence

By Wayne Elise


Imagine driving a car down a stretch of road. Think about how you steer the car. You probably don’t hold the steering wheel in one straight-ahead position and hope for the best. That’s not how you drive a car, even on a straight road. Instead, you make a series of counter-steering course corrections.

For example, as you drive, your mind, through your awareness, realizes your car is too far over to the right in your lane. It sends a signal to your muscles and you nudge the steering wheel left.

Course corrected. Much better.

But as it turns out, that course correction may have been too bold. Now the car is moving too far left in your lane. You need to push it a back right.

Okay, that’s better.

But you soon realize you should have pushed further. No worries. That’s easily corrected. Your hand turns the steering wheel to set an improved course.

But hold on. The road’s not straight up ahead. You’re now entering a slight left-hand curve. Not a problem. Your mind plots a trajectory and turns the wheel into it.

But that course isn’t precisely correct either. You turned too far. Turn back to the right. A bit more. There. Nice job. You’re driving like a profess…

Uh oh. There’s a pothole ahead. Better steer around it.

Good job. Now get back on track. You need to push to the right. That’s too far. Course-correct left.

And on and on.

Every input on the steering wheel fixes an errant course, yet sets an ultimately flawed course itself which will have to be adjusted after a time.

Until Google drives our cars, we have to accept this state of rolling imperfection so as to get us down the road.

Yet we all know drivers who seem to think otherwise. They worry about being perfectly centered in their lane. They make exaggerated, overly-conscious input corrections - the sort that makes their passengers want to throw-up, instead of the smooth, small, subtle, mostly subconscious, input corrections we associate with confident driving.

Conversations, especially with strangers, work in similar ways.

We talk a lot here at Charisma Arts about changing behavior to make you more charismatic. “Say this sentence instead of that sentence. Take action A instead of action B.” But it’s important to understand that conversations, at their best, are driven by a series of imperfect, pieces of behavior.

To understand this more thoroughly let’s examine a conversation between a guy and a girl.

He rubs his chin and looks over at her. “I believe love doesn’t exist but is purely a human construction created to justify our desire.”

He has shared a bit of his life philosophy. That’s a good thing. But the statement, as all statements do, creates unintended consequences.

The girl shakes her head. “That’s awful.”

“Perhaps it is,” he says.

“You won’t let yourself fall in love?”

“No. I’ll probably fall in love again in the future, though hopefully I’ll remember it’s nothing more than pleasant-feeling self-delusion.”

“That’s so wrong.”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“You’re the darkest boy I’ve ever met.”

Misinterpretations are a foregone conclusion. He doesn’t consider himself dark, rather light and fun. But he knows accurate impressions are only achieved over time. He’s patient.

He laughs. “I like your hands. You have strong hands for a girl.”

“I’m not sure how I should feel about that.”

He probably would have used a different wording having it over again. But c’est la vie.

“You should feel good. They’re sexy hands. The hands of a creator.”

“I do sculpt with them.”

“You do? Ahem, I mean, you do. I knew that. That’s what I’m talking about.”

She smiles. “They are kinda big though for a girl.”

“I wonder if I should tell you how I feel.”


“Well, sometimes feelings are significant and sometimes their just silly.”

“What? Tell me.”

“Do you believe people meet for a reason?”

“I do.”

“Well, I never feel that way. I’m as rational and agnostic as a boy can be. But with you, right now, I want to believe.”

Her eyes grow larger. “That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Is it? I read it in on the back of a food truck.”

“Oh my god.”

“I’m kidding.” He steps closer, reaches out, takes her hand and leads her out to the patio.

This analogy might seem like a burden - another thing to worry about. But, in practice, you don’t have to think about any of this consciously. Just like driving, we don’t think too much about our actions - our eyes focus some distance ahead and our subconscious mostly makes the moment by moment decisions for us.

Here are some ways to use this analogy for your benefit:

Reacting badly towards a reaction that you hoped was different will often also scare your conversational partner. They will lose confidence in your ability to drive the interaction.

Confident people focus forward, up ahead and don’t sweat the bumps and position in their lane to much. Their goals tend to have be more far reaching such as developing trust or having fun, or building sexual desire.

But now you have more confidence in your driving abilities. You can swing the car harshly and swerve in your lane (not that I’m recommending you do this of course) and recover.

Just because a conversation is sliding at an awkward angle doesn’t necessarily mean its out of control. I bet you’ve seen those guys who drift their cars sideways. They do incredible things. Sometimes we swerve our conversation as a way of making creative moves in conversation. Often the best path between two points is not a straight line but rather the fun or scenic path. In social situations, efficiency is often not important. We can swerve our conversation so long as we can recover and head towards our goal.

Imagine yourself in your conversational partner’s shoes. Imagine you’re sitting in the passenger seat with a professional rally-car driver. I’m sure you’ve seen those. They are the guys who drive over wilderness tracks at break-neck speed.

Think about how you’d feel sitting there in the car with the trees and spectators flashing past. Probably scared but not terrified so long as you have confidence in your professional rally car driver.

But since this is an experience that’s not on par with normal driving, you can’t rely on normal driving clues to judge your safety. Instead, you look to the demeanor of your driver. If he looks concerned, “Oh shit! I shouldn’t have done that,” you’ll become terrified. But if he looks at ease, if he tells jokes and sips a latte while sliding around a corner, you’ll feel ‘relatively’ safe even given this extreme situation.

Conversation in stressful, uncommon situations, or with people we don’t know well, can feel foreign to our conversational partners. They can’t look for their usual conversational clues to judge the safety of the conversation. In these situations they’ll look to your demeanor for how they should feel. If you look concerned with the position of the conversation, they’ll become afraid things are heading toward embarrassment and want want to bail out. But if you appear calm and confident, they’ll feel safe as you drive the conversation toward a desirable goal.

Thanks for reading, Wayne