Women are often penalized for asserting themselves verbally. Interestingly, research indicates that women are not penalized for non-verbal assertive behavior. I recommend that women use their bodies more consciously by doing things like taking expansive physical stances, narrowing the physical proximity between you and the other person and making direct eye contact. Notice your “paraverbal” behaviors such as speaking loudly, targeting your pitch and pace or interrupting – all behaviors that don’t register as aggressive.
In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy outlines research showing the impact of your physical presence on confidence and mindset. She and her colleagues found that using expansive body poses, like the V for victory body stance that many athletes take when they cross the finish line to win a race, impact both testosterone and cortisol levels in both women and men. She reports that powerful leaders have high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol. High cortisol levels are associated with high stress. She points out that this balance between high testosterone and low cortisol plays out in the animal kingdom as well with the alpha animal; the combination is typical of a powerful leader.
You can change your physiology by taking on large and confident stances to fill up the space around you. In turn, changing your body changes your thinking. Cuddy showed where taking a two minute expansive position using certain poses before an interview positively affected how people performed in stressful job interviews where those taking small and weak stances ahead of the interviews did poorly. This plays out for women and men. The main take-away from her work is that our minds change our bodies and our bodies change our minds, all resulting in changing outcomes for the better. The overall advice is to “fake it until you make it” – it really works (see more).
Cuddy’s book goes into more detail. Two of the most used poses are:
- Starfish where you stand tall legs apart and arms in the air like a V – it’s also the universal pose taken by many athletes when they finish a race.
- Wonder Women where you stand tall with legs apart and hands on your hips.
Hold each pose for 2 minutes before a high stakes situation and it will positively impact your confidence and your assertiveness.
So many times at work and at home we pay more attention to what we verbally say. Noticing and appropriately changing our non-verbal communication can make a big difference in your confidence and how well you are received.