Never mind about giving up carbs, going on the wagon, or getting in shape. These are the kind of New Year's resolutions that are made to be broken. But that's not to say that all resolutions are futile. If you're looking to change the way others see and respond to you in 2014, here are three things you can start doing right away.
First, some quick background. When other people decide how they feel about you, the two qualities they're looking for above all are “strength” and “warmth.” Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen through a combination of skill and will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them.
Knowing that strength and warmth matter is one thing, but it turns out to be very hard to project both at once. This is because strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character—wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary—tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth—smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favors—can leave us seeming more submissive than strong. So with this in mind, what can you do to change the way people see you in 2014? Here are three resolutions you can definitely keep.
1. Low-Hanging Fruit: Stand Up Straight and Smile
Yes, it sounds simple to the point of simplistic, but doing these two things consistently makes a big difference in how others see you. When people meet you, they figure out how you're feeling primarily from nonverbal cues. Posture is the #1 way to project strength—there’s a reason standing at attention is one of the first things military recruits learn in basic training—so standing tall counts for a lot. Similarly, smiling is the way we most commonly project warmth toward each other. When you smile at people, they remember the happy feeling they have when wearing that expression, even if just a little bit. So to put it simply, they will tend to like you if you smile at them because you make them feel good. If you can pair good posture with a smile, you're already doing a decent job of projecting strength and warmth at once.
2. Um, Like, Ya Know...Own the Pause
Filler phrases such as “um,” “uh,” “like,” and “you know” serve an important conversational purpose: they are a way of saying, “I’m not done speaking yet—just hold on a second while I assemble my next sentence.” But overuse of filler detracts from perceptions of strength, especially in, like, professional settings. While different setting have varying expectations, heavy use of filler signals some combination of youth, inexperience, informality, and lack of polish.
Overcoming this habit requires owning the pause between words or sentences. The trick is to practice leaving silences, and notice the effect that these pauses have on the people who are listening. The point is not just to speak without the filler—it is to learn to use those pauses. The best way to rid your own speech of filler is to record yourself speaking and then force yourself to listen to it. It can make you cringe, but in this case that is a good thing: That uncomfortable feeling is your subconscious rewiring itself to cut out that behavior. This is the surest route to reform. Beyond the painful exercise of listening to your own voice, practice using pauses when speaking in social settings like lunch conversations rather than reserving this for high-pressure occasions when you're likely to be a little nervous anyway. Once the habit takes hold, then you can turn it on and off in different settings.
3. Strike a (Power) Pose When people win big competitions, they feel powerful and elated, and they naturally get big, raising their arms in triumph, sometimes jumping, sometimes raising their heads and puffing out their chests as well. This is consistent across cultures. If you want a little shot of that feeling, all you have to do is adopt that posture and wait a minute or two for your brain to catch up with the confidence that your body is expressing. (How powerful is this effect? Amy Cuddy and Caroline Wilmuth of Harvard University and Dana Carney of the University of California and ran a very clever study to find out. Check out Amy's amazing TED talk.)
Putting this into practice does not require any imagination at all: Just stretch and hold a big position for a minute or so—you can often feel a tingle as it happens. Stretching across the upper chest seems to be especially helpful, and stretching out your limbs, shoulders, and neck muscles in general to release tension is also a good idea. Some people find it useful to move around a bit and shake off any excess energy.
So before your next big meeting or big date, stretch yourself out (in private) in a powerful pose for a couple minutes. Make it a habit to stand up straight and smile. And when you're searching for the perfect word, own the pause rather than filibustering with filler. If you do all three of these things consistently, people will see you differently.
Matthew Kohut is the co-author of Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential (Hudson Press, 2013).