Build Confidence with Body Language

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In desperate need of a jolt of confidence

Desperately needing a jolt of confidence

If I asked a packed audience, “Raise your hand if you do NOT want to feel more confident,” I would see no hands and plenty of confused or annoyed looks. Many people want more confidence, but overlook the simplest and most reliable shortcut to building it: body language. You don’t need expensive, time-consuming, or sophisticated training to feel more self-assured. With basic postural changes and gestures, you can create confidence from the outside-in. Follow these guidelines, and you cannot help but feel more confident…

Defy gravity

I could do this all day

I could do this all day

When we move or position any part of our body in a way that defies gravity, we convey positive feelings, assurance, and strength. Use a cluster of gravity-defying gestures, and you will appear noticeably confident to others. More importantly, these gestures make us feel stronger. Try standing up as you normally would, and hold that position for ten seconds. Now, make your posture as erect as possible, rock forward slightly on the balls of your feet to make yourself taller, raise your chin a fraction of an inch, and raise your eyebrows, holding that new position. Feel any different? At any time, you can use the following gravity-defying moves to manufacture confidence and positive emotion:

  • Straightening posture, either sitting or standing
  • Raising chin and eyebrows
  • Making hand gestures at eye level while speaking
  • Steepling—placing hands together around chest level, without clasping, and touching fingers or thumbs together to form a “steeple”
  • Pointing toes upward
  • Pointing thumb straight up when shaking hands
  • Adjusting a chair to seat you in a higher position (relative to others)
  • Standing on higher ground (relative to others)

Claim space

Besides "rude," what do you call someone who claims three seats on a crowded train?

Besides “rude,” what do you call someone who claims three seats on a crowded train?

Humans are very sensitive to territory, and behaviors that claim space are inherent displays of dominance. These can make the most docile person appear and feel authoritative. Let’s start with a demonstrative gesture: Standing in front of a mirror, clasp your hands together and place them behind your head, sticking your elbows out as wide as possible, without cradling your head. How do you look? How do you feel? This gesture, sometimes called “hooding” or “The Cobra,” expands your appearance, claims space, and makes your elbows look like potential weapons. Placing hands on hips (thumbs backward, fingers forward)—known as “arms akimbo”—does the same, but is less threatening because it operates at a lower height and defies less gravity. With more subtle, territorial gestures, you can build confidence without intimidating or offending others:

On the losing side of claiming train territory, this poor guy's discomfort is palpable

On the losing side of claiming train territory, this poor guy’s discomfort is palpable

  • Stretching out an arm across an armrest, sofa back, or table top, or to rest on another chair
  • Spreading fingers, especially with your hand resting on a desk or table
  • Leaning against a doorway
  • Standing or sitting slightly closer to others during conversations
  • Spreading out papers, cups, or other items on a conference table or shared space

Make yourself an open target

Whenever we feel threatened or uncomfortable, the primitive part of our brain, or limbic system, sends signals to our body that it needs to take defensive positions. For example, think about the last time you rode a crowded elevator. In this situation, the limbic system automatically orders the body to adopt a closed posture, making the arms cross, the torso turn away from others to protect vital organs, and the shoulders rise to hide the neck (also known as “turtling”).  Clearly, these defensive postures lower confidence and project vulnerability to others. Now, imagine doing the exact opposite, opening up the body to be an easy target. Posturing in this manner sends a clear message: I am so confident, I can expose my most vulnerable points without concern of injury, so come and get me.  Making yourself an open target can involve:

  • Facing the torso directly at your audience, with no table or podium protecting it, with arms held either at your sides, wide, or loosely behind your back
  • Keeping the shoulders relaxed
  • Tilting the head slightly to expose the jugular vein
  • Leaning toward another person
  • Crossing feet while standing (indicating a lack of concern about readiness for escape)

    Wide open + head-on + gravity-defying eyebrows + cocky message = confidence overdose

    Wide open + head-on + gravity-defying eyebrows + cocky message = confidence overdose

Aim directly at your audience

Directional posturing is another influence of the limbic brain. When we feel uncomfortable, our bodies receive limbic messages to position for retreat or movement away from the source of discomfort. The next time you observe an unpleasant conversation, pay attention to the participants’ feet and torsos. Most likely, one of them will have toes pointing toward an exit, or have feet spread apart in a “ready position.” You will also see people lean their torsos and shift their gaze away from their adversaries. Standing or sitting, when people aim away from their audience, they convey low confidence or negative feelings. Again, deliberately doing the opposite–aiming feet, knees, hands, torso, and gaze directly at your audience—will build confidence and project positive feelings. Even in situations where you feel intimidated, commanding yourself to directly face others can boost feelings of strength and create a balance of power in the exchange. Not only will you feel more confident, but when your adversary tries to exert authority over you and meets a direct posture, that person will likely feel less bold.

Feeling stressed, and about to lose at poker

Feeling stressed, and about to lose at poker

Replace pacifying gestures

When people feel uncomfortable, stressed, or threatened, it is normal that they make efforts to calm themselves, and they can draw from a wide variety of methods to self-soothe. Some of these include taking deep breaths, internal self-talk, visualization of positive outcomes, and pacifying gestures, which are the body’s efforts to create calm. In poker, such a gesture is known as a tell, or physical sign that a player feels uncomfortable with the hand of cards. Actions people may use to pacify themselves include:

  • Squinting, or using hands to physically block the eyes from viewing something unpleasant
  • Playing with hair or jewelry (women) or adjusting ties and loosening collars (men)
  • Rubbing eyebrows, cheeks, forehead, or back of the neck
  • Puffing cheeks
  • Touching chest area just below the Adam’s apple
  • Crossing arms tightly (“self-hug”)
  • Increasing rate of breathing
  • Wringing or clasping hands tightly
  • Fidgeting with or tapping fingers
  • Wiggling of legs/ feet while seated
  • Tapping feet

Although pacifying gestures have an adaptive purpose, they also convey low confidence, and people tend to interpret them as signs of insecurity. Sometimes, they are unavoidable. However, with increased attention to non-verbal communication, it is possible to reduce these “tells” and replace them with a combination of confident body language and more subtle calming techniques, such as relaxation breathing and positive self-talk.

Use confidence in moderation

At this point, you may be practicing your body language and preparing to take on the world. However, keep in mind that although confidence is desirable, it is not always applicable or acceptable, and requires discretion. For instance, if I go to a networking event and use “The Cobra,” I will make no friends and possibly scare people. Or, if I’m participating in a meeting with higher-ranking colleagues, and my body language is notably more confident than theirs (or I spread my supplies over half of a conference table), they may perceive my self-assured disposition as arrogant or offensive. Now that you have the tools to manufacture confidence, it’s up to you to use them wisely.

11231_1097512297457_4124294_nby Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu

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