Being told to ‘stand up straight’ and ‘look people in the eye’ may sound like outdated manners from grandma’s era rather than sound career advice. As it turns out though, grandma may have been on to something. The latest science reveals our non-verbal communication has a far greater impact than previously realised, and it could have implications everywhere from the bar to the boardroom.
You see, not only is our body language sending messages to the people around us, it’s also conveying important internal messages to our own brains. How we carry ourselves from moment to moment creates changes in our body chemistry, directly affecting our mood, behaviour and our outcomes.
If you’re raising your eyebrows in surprise, read on!
Smile! It makes you happy
A smile has the power to light up your day. Everyone has had the experience where a grin from a friend or a warm acknowledgement at the supermarket pulled us out of a bad mood.
Now you can give yourself that same mood lift, just by consciously choosing to smile for a few minutes. The interesting part is you don’t need to feel in the slightly bit happy when you start. Your physiology- the way you hold your body and your muscles sends a feedback loop to the brain in this case stimulating your feel good chemicals. You smile, you feel good.
Don’t believe it? Try faking a nice big smile and holding it for 2 minutes and notice what happens. (You can place a pencil between your teeth if you don’t mind looking silly!)
While it’s good to know that turning up the ends of your mouth for a few minutes can make you feel better, the effect doesn’t end there. Happiness (and pretty much any mood) is contagious so chances are others will end up smiling right back at you, creating a ripple effect.
At a deeper level though is something quite surprising: modelling positive body language doesn’t only change your interactions with the world, over time it can actually help bring about real changes in how you feel, act and who you become.
Expansive gestures that make us physically bigger convey power. Take a look at these well known personalities.
Those power poses don’t just tell us this person is in charge, they also have an effect on the person in the pose. This is the surprising finding of social psychologist Amy Cuddy. Check out her life-changing Ted talk here.
Standing with your hands on your hips with your head slightly raised actually increases testosterone levels and importantly decreases the stress hormone cortisol. So the physical stance actually brings about the qualities of calmness and strength required for good leadership, which are in turn conveyed to others. Grandma’s insistence on good posture has an effect on you not just how you appear to others.
Best of all, two minutes is all it takes to reap the power injection benefits. Tests show that subjects who practiced the power stance directly before a job interview, performed better and received higher ratings from interviewers than their fellow applicants who hadn’t done the 2 minute prior preparation. (The interviewees had no prior knowledge of the test situation).
Rather than the details of what you are saying, its the presence you convey, that speaks ultimately speaks volumes.
Fake it till you ….
As with the ‘fake a smile till you’re happy’ example, taking two minutes to observe some power poses before you enter the room for an interview or presentation could make an enormous difference to how you feel and to how you perform.
A word of caution, this is not about bravado–strolling into an important meeting and puffing your chest out and towering over your colleagues. Nor is it getting an outcome by being inauthentic or insincere. It’s about maximising your chances of success by putting yourself in the top physiological state to handle the situation in front of you.
Like all behaviour body language is learned. Modelling new gestures can take practice and feel unnatural in the beginning. Practice makes perfect. The old saying fake it till you make it also comes to mind here. Only Amy Cuddy adds an important tweak – your aim should be enough repetition that you actually fake it until you become it.
When practiced enough a fuller range of gestures can become comfortably part of your repertoire with all the attendant benefits: as the gestures create changes in our body and hormones, we feel different, which in turn affects our behaviour and our outcomes.
So to build your presence and inner confidence, it might simply be that you carry out some power poses in an empty office, or in the bathroom before going into your next important negotiation.
Our non verbal communication is a rich domain worthy of exploration. A key to developing your positive presence in the world is to understand the difference between open and closed body language. When we’re open and relaxed, and feeling confident we stand tall, shoulder back, our arms comfortably by our sides, or extended for a firm handshake.
Closed body language on the other hand, involves any gesture that has you crossing your arms protectively across the body. Whether you clasp either arm , or touching your neck, can send out the wrong message to a room full of people. It’s especially damaging when you’re not aware of it.
Women in particular model learned body language traits that can work against how they want to be perceived particularly in work contexts. For example, holding your head on one side shows the speaker that you are engaged and listening and is a trait often exercised by women. But it can also signal submission.
Playing with your hair or chewing on a finger can send out mixed cues, including nervousness or flirtatiousness. While we want to convey warmth, and measure an important element of good leadership, a degree of confidence and authority is also important in many situations.
Holding your head more level, making yourself more physically conspicuous, nodding less frequently and even interrupting are all qualities which tell the listener that you can hold our own, and may help you win over the client.
Understanding what your gestures are communicating, can allow you to consciously choose your message rather than having your gestures work against you. Experiment with some of these ideas, and see how it alters your mood and perceptions. And you might even want to ask a trusted friend to assess your performance.
Rather than being a performance you put on, adopting more deliberate forms of non-verbal communication can actually build your confidence, help you feel empowered and most importantly allow you to be your authentic self.
This is not the whole story on performance by any means, but if you can lift your mood and change your body chemistry and give yourself a better chance of success in a given situation–why wouldn’t you want to do that?