How Powerful is Your Presence?

Women in Business - March 2016

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Have you ever noticed how some people light up a room when they enter? When they speak, they have instant credibility. Just standing near them makes you feel good. Their leadership status is assumed by the essence of their presence. This is a powerful presence.

During the first few seconds when someone new meets you, they will form an impression about your stature, credibility and likeability. This impression is based heavily on what they see and what that tells them about you. It is no surprise how you hold yourself is a reflection of your sense of power, and this is what they pick up. If you lack confidence, it is natural to slump and condense your space; if you have lots of confidence, you expand your space by standing tall with your head back and shoulders square.

Researchers have discovered over the past five to ten years that the reverse is also true—a change in posture can cause you to feel a stronger sense of power.  How does that work? When your body is open and expansive, the level of testosterone (hormone associated with assertiveness) in your system increases and the level cortisol (a stress hormone) decreases. As a result, you feel more confident, risk tolerant and empowered.  You are ready for a challenge. In contrast, when you hold your body tight and condensed, your cortisol levels increase and testosterone levels decrease, causing you to become more inhibited, apprehensive and insecure. You are in a vulnerable, self-protective state.
Couple this biochemical dynamic with the fact that your feelings will be picked up subconsciously by those standing within ten feet of you.  Thus, if you are feeling nervous, they will sense it; if you are feeling happy, they will register an uptick in positive emotions.  When you sit or stand with an expansive posture, you feel better, others will feel better around you and they will have a better impression of your capabilities.

Sit with Power 
There are significant differences in the sitting styles of men and women.  Men are much more likely to spread out with their legs comfortably apart and arms away from their bodies. In contrast, women tend to condense their space by crossing their legs and arms, or double-crossing their legs and holding their hands in their lap. The contrasting styles have both psychological and physiological effects that diminish the personal power of women. The nice thing is there is an easy fix. Sit with your elbows on the chair armrest, or at a minimum, leave space between your arms/elbows and the rest of your body.  Keep your legs and ankles uncrossed.  Sit with a straight, but not rigid posture. See if you start to notice a difference in how you feel when you expand your space.

Stand with Power 
You may be one of the many people who struggle with trying to find a stance that feels comfortable and looks natural when standing in front of a group.  What to do with your arms and hands can be a particular problem. This awkwardness often results in holding your hands in front of you, putting them in your pockets, or holding them behind your back.  None of these options serve you well because when your hands aren’t visible in the minds of the audience, it subconsciously triggers distrust; holding your hands clasped in front of you subconsciously signals insecurity.

A simple trick to find your natural posture is to stand with your feet about waist width apart, wobble your body, wave your arms around, open up your chest, hold your head back and then gently relax—NOT a big slump relax. Your shoulders should still be straight. Observe where your arms and hands are resting.  This is how you should stand.  Practice standing this way so that it begins to feel as natural as it looks.

Power Up in the Moment
There are a few things you can do to “Power Up” in the moment when you are feeling nervous or are about to enter an important meeting and want to do your best.

>> Hold a power pose. 
In one of the top ten TED Talks, Amy Cuddy introduced three poses that when held for about two minutes will shift your hormones and improve your ultimate performance.  The first pose is raising your arms above your head in a V—think of an athlete who just won a competition. The second pose is putting your hands on your hips with your elbows out like Wonder Woman.  The third pose is putting your hands behind your head and your elbows out.  All of these poses are expansive and empowering.

>> Get grounded. 
Put your hand on your abdomen about three inches below your navel—this is your power center. Close your eyes and visualize a warm glow in your power center. Then breathe slowly and deeply for a minute or two. This simple exercise will reduce your stress levels and help you connect with your core.

>> Activate your energy circuits.
Open up your body with a few stretch exercises. Then, invigorate your body with 20 seconds of fast movement like running in place.  This will help you channel your nervous energy rather than shutting it down.

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.

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