by Daniel Kingsley
With confidence you have won before you have started.
Everybody knows about body language. The way that we can tell what someone is really thinking or feeling by looking at the way they hold themselves. Do they really like us? Are they feeling defensive or hostile? Are they much less confident than they first appear?
What’s less well known is there is another audience for our body language. Ourselves. The first one to notice when your arms are folded or your head goes down is your subconscious mind. And this matters, particularly at work.
What’s less well known is there’s another audience for our body language. Ourselves.
If we are trying to rally the troops as a manager, pitch a new idea as a team member or persuade a colleague to change their mind, how well we are able to do this depends to a large extent on how confident we are feeling that day. The difficulty is that, due to no fault of our own, events directly beforehand can conspire to knock our confidence, and just at the moment we need our confidence to be at its highest, it’s not.
The Science of Embodiment
Here’s where an understanding of the science of embodiment can come into play. Embodiment is the study of how we hold ourselves and how this affects our functioning in the world. It turns out that there is a two-way relationship between how we stand (or sit) and how we feel and think.
Not only does your head go down when you suffer a set-back or disappointment, if you choose to hold a closed in body posture for as little as 2 minutes, you will feel less confident. The reverse is also true. When we feel confident we tend to stand with our spines upright, our shoulders back and our chests open, and if we consciously do this for 2 minutes, regardless of how we were feeling beforehand we’ll feel more confident.
This is all explained by Amy Cuddy in her excellent TED talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. She points to research that shows that holding a “high power pose” for as little as 120 seconds significantly increases feelings of confidence and perceptions of confidence by others and performance at certain tasks, such as job interviews and public speaking engagements.*
This technique is obviously relevant and helpful to any high-pressure situation where you need to be performing at your best at work. If you can find somewhere private to practice, holding a high power pose (e.g. the classic Superman/Wonderwoman pose – standing upright, shoulders back, hands on hips) for a couple of minutes can give your confidence a huge boost. I’ve certainly used it before going on stage, or making key telephone calls and have immediately felt the difference. (Incidentally if you can’t find somewhere private to do this, there is new research cited by Cuddy in her book Presence that suggests that simply imagining holding one of these poses for 2 minutes has an almost equivalent effect!).
The seat of power
But this goes much further. We can learn to read our own embodiment and make subtle adjustments to it throughout our working day, without anyone needing to notice we’re doing anything weird! You can even do this whilst you’re sitting down. Try this:
- Sitting in your chair at work, think of a time when you were sitting in that chair and had a small success (or even a big one).
- Allow your body to take on the shape it had at that moment in the past and take an internal felt-sense snap-shot of how that feels in your body.
- Now allow yourself to imagine or remember a time when you had a small setback.
- Again allow your body to take on this shape and take a snapshot of how you hold yourself.
- Go backwards and forwards between these two positions a few times (they won’t look very different from the outside, we’re talking relatively subtle movements here).
You now have a reference point for these two different embodied states. The next time you notice yourself starting to go into a low confidence body state at work, simply make the subtle alteration in your body language, and feel the difference it makes. You can do this as many times a day as you need. No-one will notice what you’re doing, but I’m willing to bet they will notice a change in how confident you are.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
*For the sake of completeness, there is some dispute over why the high power-poses work (with some questioning whether in fact they do work) and also whether the route is hormonal as originally suggested by Cuddy or whether something else is in play – see this recent article published by Cuddy replying to these criticisms and reviewing the current state of the science. My experience from working with coaching clients and personally is that however they work, they do work. For now, having read Cuddy’s article, I am also content to say that there is scientific evidence to support this effect regardless of whether hormones are in play or not.