Inviting Power: Mastering Your Own Body Language
Your physiology is the key to coming across as — and feeling— confident. Learn how to do this in that charmingly self-assured way that you notice in the most admirable of people.
Power. We sense it instantly in others. It inspires respect. It makes people feel safe. And, well, it gets things done.
By managing your body language, you can feel an enhanced sense of power, which of course you’d also project. This is great news for people with insecurities (i.e. everyone).
But do we really warm to those über potent people when we first meet them? Probably not. Absolute dominance is fantastic if you’re an athlete (or a dictator), but for the rest of us it can be a bit of a barrier.
Your physiology is the key to coming across as — and feeling — confident, yet doing so in that charmingly self-assured way that we observe in the most admirable of people.
Fake it ‘til you make it:
The two-way conversation between body and mind
We all know that our bodies betray our emotional state. When we’re depressed we slouch, when we’re happy we bounce around. It’s so natural that this seems like a very obvious statement to make.
What’s perhaps a little less obvious is that the opposite is also true; your body position directly influences your mood.
So, if you slouch for long enough, you’ll start to feel down; if you force yourself to laugh, it’ll cheer you up. Just try to be negative whilst hopping around, smiling and waving your arms in the air… Does. Not. Compute.
By that rationale, if you learn the body language of confidence, you can enable yourself to start feeling that way when you may otherwise have felt a little insecure. So let’s take a look at the physiology of power…
Universal body language: dominance
Most body language is shared by both men and women across vastly different cultures. The victory pose known as “Pride”, which you’ll see when an athlete raises her arms in celebration of a win, is automatic, even for people who were born without sight.
The same is true of the opposite signals; those displaying submission or powerlessness. Both animals and humans will tend to recoil and make themselves smaller when they are feeling weak or beaten.
What actually happens in your body when you act big?
In a much cited study monitoring the the bio-chemical variances caused by changes in body position, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy and her team focussed on these high and low power poses.
High power poses are large, open and relaxed; legs and arms apart, chest and chin raised... A classic being the Wonder Woman pose — feet straddled and hands placed on hips. Someone who feels dominant or confident in any given situation will naturally adopt a high power pose (or elements of one).
In contrast, low power poses are closed and guarded. A person who feels overshadowed will tend to hunch forward, lower their head, or perhaps cross their arms, legs or feet. A particularly low power behaviour is touching or rubbing the neck or head, or placing one’s hands over the crotch in a protective way.
In an interaction, if one person adopts a high power pose, the other will tend to respond by displaying more submissive body language. You can often observe this in an office situation, just watch an intern talking to his boss; little and large.
Why dominance is important (even when you aren’t fighting)
Dominance means confidence and optimism. People who feel this way will be more outgoing and less anxious. Also, without any particular reason, they’ll be more likely to assume they are going to succeed, even in a game of chance.
Those who feel weak or out of their depth will experience the opposite; they’ll be more pessimistic, take less risks and fear/believe that they might lose or fail.
So it goes without saying that it’s probably a good idea to encourage your own feelings of power wherever possible.
Cuddy’s experiment sought to demonstrate that body language can actually influence the levels of certain hormones in the bloodstream, thus explaining how it dictates our emotional state.
The experiment saw a group of people adopt either high or low power poses for two minutes. Before and after which a saliva sample was taken to monitor the changes in their testosterone levels (a hormone that enhances feelings of aggression/dominance), and their cortisol levels (a stress hormone which helps you to feel calm under pressure).
To assess risk tolerance (or confidence/optimism if you like), the subjects of this study were given the opportunity to gamble money on the role of a die. The results were striking:
After two minutes in a high power pose, subjects exhibited an 86% likelihood to gamble, along with a 20% increase in testosterone levels, and a 25% decrease in cortisol levels making them considerably more confident, more aggressive and less stress reactive. Winner.
Those who had maintained a low power pose, on the other hand, only exhibited a 60% likelihood to gamble, a 10% decrease in testosterone levels, and a 15% increase in cortisol levels making them less confident, less aggressive and more stress reactive. Much less winner.
Sports: when to be dominant
These findings are of enormous significance for sportspeople, particularly those who compete in one-on-one sports like boxing or tennis. It means an athlete can choose to intentionally manipulate these changes in her biochemical makeup before competition so that she steps out into the arena already with the mind and body of a winner.
This would not only enhance her own performance, but it would also be likely to downgrade the performance of her opponent. Remember that “little and large” interaction between intern and boss? By exerting her own dominance, she chooses the part of “boss”, forcing her opponent to backdown.
As if that wasn’t convincing enough, you are actually physically stronger when you’re thinking a confidently. Fact.
If you have someone test the strength of your outstretched arm against resistance when you bring to mind a positive memory, you’ll find that it’s measurably stronger than when you remember something negative. In fact, whilst you relive a sad or defeated moment of your life, your arm is likely to wither and drop under nothing more than its own weight. (Learn how to test the strength of your positive mindset here).
However, unless you are Serena Williams or Ronda Rousey, a display of absolute dominance isn’t likely to benefit you that often. In communicating with others, either socially or within a work environment, we tend to succeed when our interlocutors feel that we “get” them. Familiarity is key.
So how can you at once demonstrate your confidence as well as your likability?
When you meet someone for the first time, your primary judgement is about their intentions towards you. At an unconscious level, your mind is immediately weighing up whether or not you can trust that person. It’s asking: “is this relationship safe?”
If the answer is “no”, you disconnect (which, incidentally, would be easily readable in your body language). If the answer is “yes”, then you assess whether or not they would be able to deliver whatever it is that they are proposing to bring to the relationship. Be that the skill to manage your team, or just the right personality to enjoy a cup of tea with, trust must come first.
How to communicate trust:
You can speed the development of rapport by making slight conscious adjustments to your body language during an initial interaction with someone. You want them, unconsciously, to feel as though you are similar to them. From an evolutionary standpoint, familiarity equals safety. Our survival instincts — which have remained largely unchanged since our early ancestors roamed the African savanna — will conclude: “if you’re similar to me, then you’re probably part of my tribe, and therefore I can trust you”.
When we are getting on well with another person we automatically mimic their mannerisms. Next time you have the opportunity, watch two friends in a bar. They’re likely to sip their drinks, cross their legs or play with their hair at similar moments, just as they’ll tend to mimic one another’s facial expressions, vocal patterns and turns of phrase.
The magic of rapport building
By intentionally (although subtly please) matching someone else’s body language, you can encourage a very natural-seeming sense of solidarity and trust. It takes little more than sitting or standing in a similar position.
When you do this effectively, the two of you will fall into step with one another and they’ll begin to match your mannerisms (you can test this by doing something like crossing your legs or scratching your nose and seeing if they do the same). At which point you’ll no longer need to pay attention to the process, and you’ll probably have a (quite lovely) sense of really connecting with that person.
What it also means is that by consciously building rapport, you gain the capacity to guide people into their own power poses as you communicate with them (by gradually opening up your body language and letting them follow your lead). Therefore, you can enable others to enjoy those same psychological benefits from the resultant hormonal changes.
And so herein lies the secret to developing a powerful relationship quickly. People want to be around strong and positive people, but simply being confident isn’t enough on its own. You need to invite everyone else to the party too.