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Our body language can empower us

Body language expert: Amy Cuddy, who says our postures and gestures can give us presence and power

From our posture to our gestures, our body language can empower us in the workplace.

That was the message from Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard University, whose TED talk on body language has chalked up 32 million views.

Dr Cuddy was speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference in Washington, DC, attended by more than 15,000 people.

The impressive array of keynote speakers also included Alan Mulally, former chief executive officer of Ford and Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.

Dr Cuddy started by saying that your biggest challenge is “a situation that you approach with dread, execute with anxiety and leave with regret”.

She continued with providing examples of what presence entails. She said we need to approach difficult situations with composure and execute them with calm confidence. She defined presence as “being attuned to and able to access and express your boldest self” and added that such presence liberates others to be present.

Presence reveals itself when we believe our story, convey confidence without arrogance and communicate harmoniously, Dr Cuddy added. She referred to arrogance as a wall people put up to prevent challenges from others. We have all seen a certain amount of this in our own workplaces. It’s a defensive mechanism.

Powerlessness prevents us from being present as it leads to inhibition. Our behaviour inhibition system causes us to shut down and become risk averse. Power is the opposite to powerlessness. It leads us to approach situations, as opposed to being inhibited.

With a sense of power “you feel hopeful about yourself and other people”. Power makes us more open, it reveals. We often hear the expression that power corrupts but according to Cuddy it “does not absolutely corrupt but it absolutely reveals”.

Power leads to presence but “when we feel powerless our bodies tell us to fight, flee or freeze”. Our bodies and minds are continuously conversing.

It’s important to continue to check our posture. Expansion of our chest, for example, provides power whereas contraction induces a lack of power. Expansion provides powerful body language. When we feel powerful we expand. With expansion we take up space.

Dr Cuddy provided the example of a swan or a peacock. Animals show power with expansion and so do humans. Gymnasts show pride and power in their postures. Their hands go out and up in victory. We put our arms up in the air when we feel powerful. The feeling of power comes out of us when we win.

Dr Cuddy gave the example of the Hakka, a ceremonial dance of the All Blacks (New Zealand) rugby team, performed before games to intimidate the opposition and give the players a sense of power. It’s their preparation for the forthcoming challenge.

In football, the player taking a penalty kick takes time and space before the kick. On the other hand, with powerlessness we hide our faces, we lower our shoulders and we wrap ourselves so we look smaller. Animals do the same, they wrap themselves, for example, dogs put their tails between their legs.

Dr Cuddy said it was particularly important to have confidence when going for an interview. We can practise high power poses in advance to give ourselves confidence in our approach system. She said that people who do powerful postures can actually endure pain better. Powerful postures and gestures also enable us to be more assertive.

Deep breathing also helps build our confidence, Dr Cuddy added. Again this is useful before a challenging situation. Walking can also have an effect on our mood. It’s important to sit upright.

It builds your confidence. Many people who spend an undue amount of time stooping because they are on their small electronic devices were found to be less assertive. She also told us not to sleep in the fetal position.

It’s important for young girls not to slouch and instead expand to feel confident, according to Dr Cuddy.

She then talked about gestures which of course are a large part of our daily body language. She said: “The more people gesture when they’re telling their story the more compelling they are.”

There’s a message here for those of you who make presentations or deliver speeches. A presentation without gestures often becomes boring as the gestures maintain our attention. However, the gestures should be relevant and appropriate to be convincing. A few parting words of advice were “our bodies change our minds” and “fake it until you become it”. Her advice will be used by the many participants who attended her session.

This may be a good time to ask yourself if you have presence. If you don’t or would like to improve your presence I hope you’ll find plenty of tips in this article.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) was founded in 1948 and is the world’s largest HR membership organisation devoted to human resource management. Representing more than 285,000 members in over 165 countries, the Society is the leading provider of resources to serve the needs of HR professionals and advance the professional practice of human resource management. Next year’s conference will be held in New Orleans from June 18 to 21.

Paul Loftus is an industrial/organisational psychologist, an intercultural consultant and a freelance journalist. He has been conducting both public and in-company management development and intercultural seminars in Bermuda for more than 20 years. He can be reached at (514) 282-9111; ploftus@colba.net; www.paulloftus.ca