Your body language doesn’t merely reflect your emotions, it’s often the cause. By learning some of the principal ways that your own posture, gestures, facial expression and even tone of voice affect your mind, you will be more aware of the factors influencing your mood, and give yourself an edge in presentations and negotiations.
1. Know the “Power Posture”
Opening up your body and filling more space – known as a “power posture” – has been shown in studies to have a range of confidence-boosting effects. An example for the ambitious would be clenching your hands behind your head and putting your feet up on the desk; or, a subtler example, standing feet astride with hands on hips. Basically, the more space you take up, the more “powerful” the posture.
In a study published last year, Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard Business School showed that students gave more impressive speeches for a job interview if, beforehand, they’d spent two minutes in two power poses – one sitting, one standing. Other research has shown that spending time in a power pose increases testosterone, risk taking, pain tolerance, and belief in one’s own leadership abilities. Additionally, power poses open up your breathing, calming any nerves.
The next time you’re faced with an interview or public presentation, don’t pace nervously. Instead, try spending a few minutes beforehand standing or sitting in a power pose. The most effective pose of all is the “star-shape” with arms and legs spread out wide, but you may want to save that one for when you have some privacy. Similarly, legs on the desk or hands on hips during a speech might not give the right impression, but mid-talk you can still tweak your posture to boost your confidence by standing straight and using expansive gestures (more on that below).
2. Avoid handheld devices
Even the size of computer you’re working on can change your posture, and thus, your behavior. In research published this year, Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy found that people were more likely to be assertive after spending time in a more open posture using a laptop or desktop computer compared with in a constricted posture using a tablet or a phone-sized device. Meaning, the size of your preferred device matters, and it can have unintended effects on your mood and confidence.
Before an important phone call or meeting, make sure you spend some time away from the phone or tablet. Not only will the lack of distractions help you focus and organize your thoughts, avoiding cramping over a touchscreen will also leave you more confident.
3. Be mindful of your facial expression
It’s not just the position of our bodies that can affect our emotions, the expression on our faces can too. For instance, for some people, spending time deliberately smiling can help them to feel more positive and increase the accessibility of positive memories. It’s a similar story with tone of voice. Research shows that when people speak with a lower pitch they feel more powerful. British psychologist Richard Wiseman calls this the “as if” principle – behave as if you feel happy and confident and it’s likely you will actually start to feel more happy and confident.
As with postures, it also pays to be mindful of times that your facial expression is affected incidentally by your circumstances. When your mom warned that your funny face would get stuck, she was on to something. If you spend hours frowning in concentration at a computer screen, it’s likely that prolonged negative facial expression will have an effect on your mood and the perceptions others have of you. Indeed, earlier this year researchers in Italy found that people felt angrier and more aggressive after they’d spent time frowning in direct sunlight, as compared with others who wore shades or had the sun behind them. If you’ve been squinting at a screen for hours or frowning during your commute to the office, give yourself a break before an important meeting or phone call, or find a mirror and “reset” your expression. You don’t want your frowning “screen face” to interfere with your emotions in a meeting.
4. Gesture when you speak
We tend to see gesticulation as a behavioral quirk, but research shows these hand movements actually assist our mental processes.
A study published last year found that people were better able to explain math problems and simultaneously remember a string of letters if they were allowed to gesture meaningfully as they spoke. Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago and her colleagues say that gesturing probably makes the math part of the task less mentally taxing by externalizing and visualizing relevant information, thereby freeing up cognitive resources for the memory challenge.
As a bonus, gesturing while you speak won’t only aid your thought processes, it likely will also help you make a good impression. Research has shown that presenters are judged as more effective and competent when they make hand gestures compared with when they keep their hands still. Like tone, volume, and pacing of your speech, gestures are another tool to punctuate what you’re saying. Gestures can also help the audience understand and remember what you said. The key thing here is to ensure your gestures are meaningfully related to what you’re saying, and not just random hand flapping.
Stress and anxiety can make you slouch, frown and cross your arms defensively. This sets up a vicious circle: the position of our bodies and the expression on our faces is fed back to the brain and influences how we feel, which then changes our body language. There may be many factors in a challenging work situation that you can’t control, but this isn’t one of them. You can break this negative feedback loop. Open up your posture, stand tall, talk strong, gesticulate – act “as if” you are in control – and your wishful thinking may just become reality.