“Sorry!” I called out to my teammates during our weekly soccer game, after making a solid pass to an opposing player. A few minutes later, I was sorry again, for taking a weak shot on goal. And I was sorry once more when I let a player from the other team sidestep me to score against us.
That’s when it dawned on me that I am a pathological apologizer. The habit may be most obvious on the soccer field, but it doesn’t end there. The other day, someone phoned my house by mistake, and when she said, “Oops, wrong number,” I replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
I come from Minnesota, where the state motto might as well be “I don’t want to impose,” but my issues go beyond that. I am deeply, painfully averse to inconveniencing others (even when it’s not actually my fault), and that includes any sort of confrontation, no matter how mild. In the most inconsequential interactions, I find myself doing linguistic gymnastics to avoid the slightest possibility of offending, as when a Staples clerk mistyped my phone number while searching for my “rewards” account recently and I helpfully offered, “The number must have become entered incorrectly somehow.” I wish I were kidding.
While consideration for others is obviously a positive personality trait, endless worry about tact and politeness is not only anxiety producing, it’s disempowering. My needless apologies during soccer games are a demoralizing refrain, as though I’m constantly telling myself, “You stink.” And every time I agree to leave my writing desk early because my neighbor suggests that her kids have an evening playdate with mine (mom code for “free childcare”), I’m putting her schedule and objectives ahead of my own. So when a friend tells me about an executive education class for women called “Acting with Power,” I can’t help seeing it as a sign.
A few weeks later, I’m sitting in a sunny conference room on the campus of Stanford University, surrounded by MBAs, VPs, and CFOs—all of us hoping to become more confident and assertive. Our guide is psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, PhD, an expert in the body language of power. (Today’s lesson is an abbreviated version of her ten-week course, one of the most popular electives at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.) Standing at the front of the room in dressy jeans and a stylish velvet jacket, Gruenfeld looks authoritative yet approachable. And she wastes no time getting down to business, launching right into a lecture on, of all things, how to sit.
“Powerful people use furniture wrong—to great effect,” she announces. “They sit sideways on chairs, drape their arms over the back, or use two chairs by placing an arm across the back of an adjacent chair. They put their feet on the desk. They sit on the desk. They turn the chair around backward and straddle it.”
These relaxed postures, Gruenfeld says, all involve claiming space. But they do something more: Recent research suggests that a powerful posture—from the tilt of your head to the turn of your toes—sparks a biochemical reaction in the body that actually makes you more powerful.
In other words, Gruenfeld says, it’s possible to fake it till you make it.
“Many of us, especially women, resign ourselves to the idea that if we don’t feel powerful, we can’t act that way,” she explains. “But these new findings imply that you can reverse the equation: By changing how you use your body, you can change your psychology, and ultimately, the circumstances of your life.”
Body Over Mind
Although we tend to give our brains all the credit for directing our thoughts, studies suggest that in fact, we use our bodies to think, too. Even seemingly trivial movements and sensations influence how we behave. Reaching upward, for instance, has been shown to make it easier for a person to recall happy memories, while reaching downward draws negative memories to mind. Reclining—a position that physically stifles a “fight or flight” reaction—helps us temper angry emotions. Holding a warm cup of coffee makes us feel more warmly toward others. Perching on a hard chair leads to tougher negotiating. Even fleeting changes in our own facial expressions—some so subtle they’re detectable only by recording the electrical impulses in muscle cells—provide crucial feedback to the brain: One study found that subjects who received Botox treatments that blocked their ability to mimic emotional expressions were subsequently poorer at recognizing others’ emotions.
And just as our physical experiences influence our memory, feelings, and social judgment, they also seem to dictate how we conceive an abstract concept like power. In a study published last year, psychologists Dana Carney, PhD, and Amy Cuddy, PhD, had their subjects spend two minutes in one of two types of poses—either an open, expansive “power pose” (for example, leaning back in a chair with feet propped up on a desk, fingers laced CEO-style behind the head, elbows out) or in a tight, constricted pose (say, sitting with shoulders hunched, legs together, hands clasped in lap). The people who struck expansive poses reported feeling more powerful than the others did, and went on to make riskier decisions in a subsequent gambling game. Most remarkably, they experienced a measurable physiological shift: Their testosterone (the hormone that, in both men and women, is linked to assertiveness and energy) spiked by 19 percent, while their levels of the stress hormone cortisol fell by 25 percent.
Gruenfeld and her colleagues have likewise found that when people strike a power pose, they perceive themselves as being physically stronger and taller than they really are. Other researchers have discovered that adopting an expansive posture can even increase a person’s tolerance for pain.
“The fact that simple poses can have such an impact is extraordinary,” says Carney, now a professor in the business school at the University of California Berkeley. “They appear to flip some internal switch, making the world seem better, brighter, easier.” Although researchers don’t fully understand the psychological and biological processes at work, what’s clear, she says, is that the changes are internal. “It seems to be about how you present yourself to others. But it’s really about what’s going on inside you.”
Playing the Part
Like many other species, humans tend to behave in either a dominant or deferential manner—a preference that’s determined by some combination of our personality and ingrained expectations about where we belong in the social pecking order (expectations conferred by gender, class, birth order, geographic origin, and so on). It’s easy to get stuck in character, perpetually enacting roles we didn’t consciously choose. (Picture the overly smiley coffeepot replenisher at work who’s also a doormat at home.) But this afternoon, Gruenfeld and her co-teacher, drama instructor Kay Kostopoulos, aim to help us shed the automatic physical habits that go along with those roles.
Kostopoulos starts by leading us through a series of warm-up exercises. At first, the scene is yoga-esque. We step out of our shoes and stand tall, close our eyes, and take deep, slow breaths. But before long, the tempo changes, and Kostopoulos has us jumping up and down, shaking our arms, swinging our hips, blowing raspberries, and making kooky faces, alternately sticking our tongues out and then scrunching up our noses. All the while, we’re huffing out husky ha-ha-ha sounds from deep in our bellies. Kostopoulos encourages us to experiment with a deep voice. “You don’t want Mary Tyler Moore,” she squeaks, then drops her tone an octave: “You want Diane Sawyer.”
“Shake off your context,” Gruenfeld encourages us. “You’re freeing yourself from the way your body reinforces your presumed place in the social hierarchy.” And it’s true: In this room full of clown-faced, raspberry-blowing business execs, any semblance of hierarchy has evaporated.
With limbs, lungs, and lips suitably primed, we move on to a drama lesson. Gruenfeld and Kostopoulos begin with a scene about two actresses jockeying for status on a movie set. Gruenfeld starts out confidently dominant and Kostopoulos, meekly deferential—the fundamental styles of interaction that directors call playing low status and playing high status. Then suddenly they change posture: Gruenfeld’s friendly demeanor morphs into barely disguised scorn. And Kostopoulos, with her shoulders hunched and her toes turned inward, transforms into a shy, schoolgirlish wisp of a thing. As the scene continues to unfold, it becomes clear that the power gradient between them has nothing to do with the script, and everything to do with how they use their bodies.
When it’s my turn to act, I am paired with a 20-something woman named Amneh, a recent business school graduate. As we begin, Amneh’s chin is down, her eyes flicking up to my face only occasionally. “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m driving you crazy!” she blurts with a nervous laugh, shrinking into her seat, knees pressed tightly together, elbows digging into her sides. Every so often, she fidgets, smoothing her eyebrows or adjusting her scarf.
I lean back comfortably in my seat, draping my arm over the chair between us. Kostopoulos nudges my foot, prompting me to stretch my legs in front of me. I cross them at the ankles.
“I can get used to anything,” I say. “That’s one of my strengths.” I am looking directly at Amneh, holding my gaze steady.
“That’s funny,” she chirps. Her hands are now pinned under her thighs, which makes her seem even smaller.
Kostopoulos interrupts: “Don’t raise your eyebrows as you ask the question.”
“Why?” I say again, stone-faced.
Amneh giggles and clears her throat before saying, “That’s my strength, too.” She ventures a brief, unconvincing smile before dropping her gaze to the floor.
I stand up, walk a few paces, then slowly turn to face her. My weight is evenly balanced on both feet; my hands rest lightly on my hips. I am about to respond when I feel Kostopoulos’s cool hands grasp my head from behind, lifting my chin higher and lengthening my spine.
“Now go,” she says.
I start to speak, but Kostopoulos interrupts again: “Slower.”
I try again, more leisurely this time.
“Even slower,” Kostopoulos says, her hands still cupping the sides of my head.
I try once more, enunciating every syllable. It feels awkward, speaking so slowly, standing so squarely, holding my head so still. I am fighting an urge to fold my arms over my chest. But as I talk, I feel a rising recognition that my aloof posture has put me in control. I could eat Amneh for lunch.
Keeping up this facade with Kostopoulos clutching my skull, however, proves beyond my abilities. A moment later, the spell is broken, and Amneh and I burst into laughter. Still, these few minutes of playacting have palpably demonstrated how minor physical adjustments can profoundly alter the course of an interaction.
When the curtain eventually falls on Gruenfeld’s class, I am inspired but unsettled. As much fun as it was to unleash my haughty side, I certainly wouldn’t want to cultivate such an unlikable persona. So I ask Gruenfeld if she thinks it’s possible to be powerful without being a jerk.
“What we do in class is push you to your extremes,” she explains. Her goal is to help people experiment with a range of behavioral styles, from the most dominant to the most deferential. (Just as important as learning how to play high is recognizing when to play low, by tempering displays of authority with self-deprecation and humor.) Once my body has mastered the full range of nonverbal language, she says, I will automatically approach situations with a flexible mix of confidence and humility.
Of course, gaining that fluency will take practice. In the meantime, rather than trying to adhere to a long mental checklist of powerful poses, Gruenfeld recommends picking one or two nonverbal techniques to focus on. For example, keeping your elbows on the arms of your chair (rather than against your sides); making direct and sustained eye contact; or using a lower, more authoritative voice. If you can do one or two of those things consistently, she says, “the rest of your psychology will catch up.”
The first opportunity to try my newfound skills comes at my daughter’s softball game the next week. My target is her coach; in an instructional league for 9-year-olds, his overriding goal is to win, no matter the cost. Game after game, I’ve watched my daughter languish in the outfield while the same cast of players (including the coach’s child) spends almost every inning in the infield. Two weeks earlier, my husband sent a temperate e-mail to the coach questioning this imbalance but received no reply. Now, watching my daughter attempt to stay alert in left field, I decide that I need to confront the coach, no matter how uncomfortable doing so makes me feel.
First I retreat to a porta-potty. Hopping up and down (and wondering what it would take to tip this sucker over), I shake my arms and exhale my “ha-ha-has.” A few minutes later, the pit in my stomach has disappeared and both my body and mind are more relaxed. Striding back toward the diamond to watch the last inning, I try to walk with an assertive posture, keeping my head level, my eyes straight ahead.
When the game ends, I approach the coach, positioning myself on a gentle rise behind the backstop so we’re the same height, and ask for a few minutes of his time. Following Gruenfeld’s advice, I decide to focus on two things: maintaining eye contact and keeping my hands on my hips, elbows out. Although I can feel my pulse in my neck, I’m pretty certain I look self-assured.
I make the points I’ve rehearsed, my words rolling out in my best Diane Sawyer basso. When the coach tries to dispute the facts, I interrupt: “Coach, I’m not here to argue with you; just look at the team’s stats. I’m asking you to consider how you can remedy this situation.”
In the end, he offers a stumbling, possibly halfway sincere apology and promises to rethink his lineup. When he starts fidgeting with the cap of his Gatorade bottle, I know I’ve won. I thank him for his time and turn away, thinking, “My God, this stuff actually works.” World, here I come.