We all know how much our body language tells others about us. Our thoughts are reflected in our physical behaviours, so, depending on our posture, we can convey authority and self-confidence or self-doubt and embarrassment. But not everyone knows that so-called non-verbal communication can, in fact, influence the mind and how we see ourselves. Social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School, Amy Cuddy, explains how.
Let’s start with an assumption: body language is something instinctive and primordial. In Nature, the strong (the leaders of the pack) tend to show their power very clearly: chest out, head held high and a threatening stance. In the same way, people who feel powerful tend to ‘spread’ their bodies: when they stand, they place their hands on their hips and hold their arms away from their bodies; their posture is relaxed when they sit, with their legs stretched out, feet on the desk and arms behind the head. “Those who feel powerful are usually more assertive and have greater self-confidence,” Cuddy maintains.
Those who feel low power tend to make themselves look smaller by crossing their legs and folding their arms, for instance, or leaning forward. “Touching your neck is one of the most obvious forms of protection,” she explains.
Cuddy describes how, in a job interview, these non-verbal forms of communication – the powerful ones associated with enthusiasm, passion, resourcefulness – can make the difference in the eyes of the recruiter, possibly even more than verbal communication. But this does not mean that we should put our feet on the desk during an interview. However, what we can do is to get ready before we go in to meet the interviewer by doing a short exercise, which may sound banal but really can be effective.
Taking on a ‘powerful pose’, even for a few moments, can increase levels of testosterone (the dominant hormone) and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone)
Taking on a ‘powerful pose’, even for a few moments, can actually increase levels of testosterone (the dominant hormone) and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone). It’s an instant chemical reaction with the power to make people more optimistic and more willing to put themselves forward. “If an exercise for your body can influence your mind, then this could be very useful in particularly stressful moments like an interview,” Cuddy says. “Instead of sitting bent over our smartphones or looking at notes, we should try to make a powerful pose for a couple of minutes, because it can really help to successfully handle the meeting.”
If you feel that your posture is not very powerful, then it is very likely that the feeling of power that you get through your ‘power pose’ could be undermined moments later by a feeling of unease, you may feel like an impostor.
When she explains why it is so important to banish such thoughts, Cuddy tells a very personal story of how, aged 19, she was involved in a serious road accident that left her with brain injury and a significant drop in intelligence. At the time, doctors told her she should give up her studies as she would be unable to complete college. She refused to give in and managed to earn her bachelor’s degree and move on to Princeton. That is where she felt like an impostor: “In my head, I thought: I don’t deserve to be here,” she says. This was such a crippling feeling that in the middle of making a speech in public, she wanted to walk away. Then her tutor told her to pretend she was powerful, even when she felt she wasn’t. She should do that whenever necessary, even when she was terrified. “I did it over and over again and suddenly the moment came when I said to myself ‘wow, I can do this, this is who I am,” Cuddy says.
At the end of the day, this is the goal – to ‘fake it till you make it’. Then Cuddy says, there is one further step: “I don’t want to say fake it till you make it. I say – fake it till you become it. If you do it long enough, it will become a part of you.”