Wednesday, February 13

Communicating Big: The Art Of Nonverbal Power

When colleague Kelli Matthews, instructor at the University of Oregon, shared a recent talk by American social psychologist Amy Cuddy, I was immediately curious and excited to see it. Cuddy's TED talk rubs up against some of my individual work related image development, with mine approaching it from different disciplines. I had seen her study two years ago, but not the talk.

I also thought this would be useful for one of my upcoming classes. Several former students have encouraged me to include a larger spokesperson session as part of Writing For Public Relations. In this case, the topic stems from Cuddy's work in nonverbal communication with Dana Carney and Andy Yap.

The crux of the research is simple enough. They note that humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. And then the researchers ask a riveting question. Can posing in these open postures create power?

The power of nonverbal communication is remarkable, even potent. 

What was so fascinating about the study was that it confirmed that posting in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants. Let me be clear here, because it's especially cool.

What they found was that the high-power poses could elevate testosterone and decrease cortisol, which was accompanied by increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk. Meanwhile, low-power poses exhibited the opposite. Any person, they suggest, could instantly make themselves more powerful by assuming simple one-minute poses.


While I find the subject fascinating, it is not the end of the story for me. While the research is spot on in terms of being interesting, Cuddy overreaches with her anectodal application. Specifically, like many personal branders have suggested, you can fake it until you make it.

Her own story suggests this is possible because she used to "fake it until you make it" in order to feel comfortable teaching at Princeton. In other words, if you pretend to be powerful, you will actually act more powerful (and be more powerful). There is some truth to this, but "faking it" is still flawed.

You don't have to fake it to increase your sense of power.

While the body can shape the mind, just as Cuddy suggests, it's more important to change reality rather the perception. In other words, you don't have to fake it to make it. You can simply make it by putting yourself in related experiences that will help you adopt and learn new leadership skills.

Why is that important? Because in one of the studies conducted by the researchers, they had the mock interviewers convey no emotional response. They had good reasons to do it, but what was missed was that setting might not account for real-life scenarios where one or more of the interviewers may be dominant.

In such scenarios, when people feel uncomfortable because there is no room to capture an "alpha position," they tend to respond using subconscious cues. And what happens? People who are prone to low-power postures surrender and those prone to inappropriate high-power poses can be agitated.

It is much more effective to give people empowering experiences. In fact, this is why so many motivational trainers ask students to climb poles, walk over coals, break boards, or any number of tasks that they have never done (but can do with some instruction). Doing something that one would ordinarily assume is extraordinary creates a mental impression that anything is possible while delivering the same chemical reaction that Cubby mentioned in her speech. And the more you do it, the more you believe it.

In fact, it's not all that different than what I teach interns and students. I encourage them to become involved with at least one nonprofit and one professional association because both types of organizations will open leadership opportunities for them. In addition, it will not only teach them that leadership isn't reliant on dominance like animals, but also emotional intelligence to adapt to a group.

The proverbial wise man on a mountain doesn't need a dominant posture to convey power. His perceptive size is the mountain. Or, if you prefer a different example, search for images of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of them convey low-power and even submissive postures despite his depth of power.
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