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Nov 4 / Michael Wright

Stand up straight…own the room.

When I was a teenager, my dad would admonish me to stand up straight. His reasoning was that when I was slouched over with my hands in my pockets, I looked like a hoodlum. What he didn’t understand was that that was the point. I wanted to look like a hoodlum. Putting this in terms of nonverbal communication, I was conveying exactly what I wanted to convey: don’t mess with me, I’m tough.  Dad was right; we were just on different pages at the time.

Eventually I straightened up (literally and figuratively).  And it’s a good thing. Because after watching Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are,” I understood there was an even better reason to straighten up. Yes, I was telling the world I was a punk, but I was wiring myself to be one at the same time.

Fascinating stuff. We all understand the role of nonverbal signals in communication. We know that how we say something is as important — or more important — as what we say. There are books on gestures and facial expressions and postures and what it all means to the receiver.

But, now there’s some serious science about how nonverbals affect the sender, whether they intend it or not. Cuddy covers some of the things we’ve heard before. How forcing a smile when you feel lousy can improve your mood. The “fake it ’til you make it” stuff. I don’t want to minimize that, because it’s real and it’s important and can make a huge difference.

But Cuddy focused her research on the study of “power positions”  — standing up straight,  hands on hips, taking up space, radiating confidence. She also drew on research that noted that dominant primates, and effective leaders, tended to assume such positions, while also having high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).  Sometimes these hormonal levels actually develop after the ascendancy into dominance or leadership. In other words, you wind up at the top, you act like you belong, and your body chemistry and mind change accordingly. Act big; become big.

She tested her hypothesis by measuring subjects’ body chemistry before and after they assume power (or non-power) positions. She also tested their risk aversion before and after. Voila.  People using the power positions increased testosterone and reduced cortisol — quickly –while their cowering counterparts experienced the opposite. The power people made big bets.  The non-power people, not so big.

Of course, Rogers and Hammerstein discovered this decades ago, and immortalized it in a song from The King and I called “Whistle a Happy Tune.” You won’t find it on the pop charts, but if you click on this link and read the lyrics, you’ll see they nailed it.

Toward the end of her talk, Cuddy told a personal story of feeling on the brink of failure. Of feeling like she didn’t deserve to be where she was. A mentor told her otherwise. Told her to step up and claim her place. Told her to fake it until she made it. And Cuddy did.  Later in life, when she was in the mentor position, she gave similar advice to a young woman, then watched her “fake it until she became it.”  This was the highlight of the talk.

I think we all have moments when we are unsure, or feel vulnerable. Cuddy’s advice: before you walk through the door, take two minutes and get into a power position.  Stand up straight, put your hands on your hips, own your space, and then march in and be what you are destined to be. If that doesn’t work, just whistle a happy tune.



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