The Body Language Of True Power

Why does Amy Cuddy, the famous body language researcher, say that she would be horrified if people followed her advice about adopting powerful body language in job interviews?

Quite simply, if you walked into an interview adopting the body language she recommends for boosting your self-confidence, you’d be thrown out of the interview for being an arrogant jerk.

The Mis-Guided Goal Of Dominance

Dominant, yes. But would you hire this woman?

Dominant, yes. But would you hire this woman?

Here are a couple of photos from one of Amy Cuddy’s studies into ‘powerful’ body language. What are your first impressions of these two people?

Sure, these individuals seem confident in some sense of the word, but would you like them? Would you want to work with them? Would you be attracted to them?

Probably not.

At best they’d draw out your competitive streak and you’d challenge them. At worst you would walk away and ignore them.

It’s commonly believed that ‘alpha males’, the dominant members of a group, are the most successful in business and love, but this is actually not the case.

People who are overly dominant win battles but lose wars.

People who are overly dominant win battles but lose wars.

In business, dominant people may rise quickly in an organization, but it’s more difficult for them to build alliances and supportive relationships. These are essential for long-term success in complex business environments. People who are too dominant tend to plateau or self-destruct.

In love, dominant males may be able to get laid, but they’re much less likely to be able to sustain satisfying long-term relationships.

Dominant women face similar challenges, as I illustrated with “the tale of two female CEOs” in True Power – It’s Not What You Think. Just like men, women who are too domineering risks achieving short-term goals at the loss of long-term success.

People who are overly dominant win battles but lose wars.

In fact, only insecure people feel the need to assert themselves in domineering ways. This kind of dominant body language is a sign of weakness, as I described in True Power – It’s Not What You Think.

Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

As Amy Cuddy rightly says, our body language shapes our identity. The body language we adopt affects our internal emotional state, our external behaviors and ultimately how others relate to us.

So Amy’s recommendation to practice dominant body postures in order to increase self-confidence and success is actually bad advice. Do this too much, and you’ll start pissing people off big time.

The Body Language Of Submission

Being submissive is not the answer either.

Being submissive is not the answer either.

The opposite extreme of dominance – being submissive – is not the answer either.

Research by Amy Cuddy and others has shown that people who adopt submissive body language before job interviews, even for a few minutes, tend to be perceived as being less competent and are less likely to be hired.

Amy’s research explores the short-term effects of temporarily adopting weak body language. In contrast, my article, How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body describes how adopting habitual patterns of poor body language can hard-wire our brains (specifically the cerebellum), creating permanent mindsets of weakness and insecurity in life.

Here are two examples of weak body language that Amy had her test subjects adopt in her research. You can see how the postures are submissive and weak.

Submissive body language evolved to protect our vulnerable body parts.

Submissive body language evolved to protect our vulnerable body parts.

It’s interesting to note how these submissive body postures evolved. When we’re physically afraid, we contract and hide our ‘soft’ areas in the throat, belly and of course, for men, the testicles. Protecting our soft areas makes our most vulnerable body parts less available to damage by an attacker.

Moreover, shrinking our whole body makes us smaller and less likely to be noticed by a predator.

Unfortunately shrinking also makes us more likely to be missed for a promotion and passed over by a potential suitor.

Our brains are not good at distinguishing between literal physical threats and figurative emotional threats because the different forms of fear use the same neurotransmitters and neural pathways. Because of this overlap between physical and emotional threats, through the course of our evolutionary history these body postures of physical fear and protection became the postures of emotional weakness and fear as well.

Powerful Vulnerability

Being overly dominant will break relationships and sabotage your success, but being submissive will sabotage both your short-term and long-term success.

So what’s the way out of this dilemma? What body posture can we adopt that will support short-term and long-term success?

In True Power – It’s Not What You Think, I took the position that real power comes when we are confident enough to be vulnerable. That sounds like an oxymoron, but when you dig a little deeper, it makes a lot of sense.

So what does powerful vulnerability look like in practice?

There are two aspects to powerful vulnerability: the first is power and the second is vulnerability.

Power

First, what does power look like, without the need to be dominant?

Demonstrating power, success and confidence doesn't have to include a power struggle.

Demonstrating power, success and confidence doesn’t have to include a power struggle.

Here’s an athlete demonstrating power, success and confidence without the power struggle that is evident in the earlier dominant photos.

The body language of true power can take several forms – standing, sitting or even reclining, but all the forms have some common characteristics.

The first is muscle tone that is relaxed but ready to take action. You may be still, but could move easily and efficiently to respond to any situation or desire. This communicates the sense of confident vitality.

The second, especially when standing or sitting, is being rooted firmly on the ground. When we’re nervous we use our muscles and ligaments to pull away from the earth in anxiety. When we’re confident, we relax down into the ground. It feels emotionally grounding (think “Pretty Woman” when Richard Gere takes off his shoes to feel the grass) and at the same time invigorating.

The last is having a relaxed gaze. When we’re nervous we focus our attention on potential threats, and when we’re confident we take in all our surroundings using our focal and peripheral vision equally.

Vulnerability

While the body posture of insecurity protects our soft body parts, the body posture of vulnerability does the opposite: it exposes the soft body parts. This body posture is vulnerable in the literal sense of the word – we are exposing our most vulnerable  body areas to potential attack.

In evolutionary terms this vulnerable body language communicates that we are so confident and secure that we feel no threat and no need to defend ourselves.

Vulnerable body language communicates that we are so confident that we feel no need to defend ourselves.

Vulnerable body language communicates that we are so confident that we feel no need to defend ourselves.

Again, because our brains cannot distinguish between physical and emotional vulnerability, this same body posture makes us emotionally open and vulnerable.

When we are emotionally vulnerable we open our hearts. We don’t defend ourselves against our own and others’ emotions – both positive and negative. There are several body sites we use to accomplish this emotional vulnerability: our hearts, chest, collar bones and throat.

When we open and expand our hearts, we can feel more love, loss and compassion.

When we expand our chests and soften our chest bone, we become more open to showing our own feelings to others and connecting with their emotions.

When we soften our collarbones, relaxing and opening the front of our shoulders, we become more open to connecting with others.

When we relax and open our throats, we become more open to expressive communication.

Relaxing and expanding all of these body sites creates the experience of emotional connection and communicates emotional vulnerability. It communicates that we are so comfortable with our own and others’ emotions that we have nothing to hide.

Develop Confident Body Language

Confident, relaxed and undefended.

Confident, relaxed and undefended.

So the key to developing truly powerful body language is to build strong, powerful body language at the same time as developing vulnerable, undefended body language.

Sounds impossible, right?

In fact it’s easy. I’ve put together a guided meditation for you, Develop Powerful Body Language, which shows you how to accomplish this posture naturally and easily.

After a few sessions of listening to the guided meditation while you nap or sleep, you’ll find that your body posture and presence in the world have changed. More importantly, you’ll find that your sense of yourself and how others respond to you have also changed to match.

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Comments

  1. Oh, excellent article! I can’t wait to try the guided visualization! Thanks, Mark. :)

  2. “When we open expand our chests and soften our chest bones”…. What the hell kind of nonsense?? “Soften our collar bones”?? Are you kidding me? People buy into this psycho babble?