How do you walk into a room, out of a meeting, or onto a stage? You probably have some parental or authority figure in your past who told you to worry about your posture, but how you carry yourself is more important and more subtle than just standing up straight when you go on a job interview. There’s a lot going on, all the time, and your unconscious mind – and everyone else’s – takes it all in.
We’re “read” unconsciously by the people around us. We convey our attitudes through our non-verbal signals much more powerfully (and directly to the unconscious) than we do through our speech. So when you try to get a sense of your personal presence – how you’re showing up – you need to understand that your physical actions and presence are what conveys your persona – your personality – to others. It’s all the more powerful because it’s unconscious.
Important information is communicated unconsciously through gesture even in normal conversations. In one study, listeners tested afterward didn’t know which information came from gesture versus speech. There are some studies that show that if a listener copies the gesture a speaker makes the listener is more likely to like the person and attend to what they said.
You can implant ideas in people’s heads through gestures. They won’t be aware that you’ve done so, but later on they’ll start to talk spontaneously about the ideas you’ve gestured about earlier.
You only think consciously about someone else’s signals when they’re really strange or alarming or the person is really important to you and you’re actively wondering what their state of mind is.
But that unconscious activity determines an extraordinary amount of the effect you have on other people, the relationships you have with them, and your influence upon them – and vice-versa.
As a first step, then, toward becoming a powerful presence, whether as a leader or a speaker, or just a person, it’s essential to get a handle on these unconscious cues.
Body language is crucial to your understanding because body language tells us what we think about other people — and they think about us. People decode emotions primarily through gesture (and tone of voice). The emotional component represents a separate, non-verbal conversation that goes on parallel to the verbal one, and typically a split second before the verbal one.
So you must master both conversations, but especially the second.
That conversation will make or break you as a communicator. Again, you may be entirely unaware of it, but it may confirm you as the top dog, sabotage your authority, connect you with your mate for life, get you in a fist fight (or out of one), win you a game, or lose one, blow your chances at getting a raise, get you the big sale, lose you the prize, or win it — and so on and on through most of the big moments in life.
How can you become more aware of this conversation that your body is having with the other bodies around you? Is it worth the effort? Will you become self-conscious and inauthentic if you do? Can you monitor what everyone else is ‘saying’? Is that helpful? Will it get you to places you won’t otherwise reach?
Understanding the second conversation is key. It’s not something that you can leave to chance or the unconscious. There are simply too many decisions to be made, too many inputs to weigh, too many players in your life to manage and lead. In the twenty-first century, the pace of life has accelerated, the flow of information has exploded, and the sheer physical and intellectual demands on everyone have intensified. You can’t rely on common sense or instinct or winging it today as you once might have done.
The first step to mastering your personal communications, then, is to figure out what you’re saying in this second conversation. You’ll need to take inventory of how you inhabit space, how you stand, how you sit, how you move, and how you interact with others. When you’re sitting alone, do you slouch or sit straight? When you stand, are you taking up all of your space, or do you shrink into corners? When you move, do you move confidently, or do you slink — or do you careen?
And your interactions with others – what do they look like? Do you come alive when other people are in the room with you, or do you go on the defensive?
Try to Catch Yourself Being Yourself
Try to catch yourself in unconscious behavior. You need to know how you’re behaving when you think no one’s watching – especially you. And try not to judge yourself. Choice and change can come later. For now, just be compassionate, non-judgmental, and try to get a picture of how you inhabit space.
Your body is the physical embodiment of your unconscious attitudes, intents and desires. As the old saying has it, in your youth, you have the face – and body – you’re born with; by the time you’re middle-aged, you have the face – and body – you deserve. So take the sting out of that saying and simply observe yourself and learn what those observations tell you about your attitudes, intents and desires.
Be non-judgmental. Just notice what you do.
If you have a hard time catching yourself ‘unawares’, then think about setting up a video camera when you’re in a meeting or undertaking some routine chores. At first, you’ll be self-conscious, and your behavior will be distorted from your usual mode of being, but after a few minutes you’ll forget the camera is there. So be patient and use the video for what it can tell you about your habitual behavior, beginning a few minutes in.
As you watch, ask yourself, how am I showing up? Expressive or bottled up? Happy or sad? Active or passive? Strong or weak? What kind of person do I look like – to me? Someone who would be fun to meet? Someone imposing, or a wallflower? A nerd or a leader? And so on.
How do your gestures show up? Do you gesture a lot? A little? Are your gestures strong or weak? Are they expressive and fluid, or rigid and limited?
If you can take personal inventory in even a moderately detached way, you can take the first step to understanding yourself as an active presence in the world – and decide what you want to do about it.
If you’re having trouble being objective about yourself, then ask trusted (and supportive) family and friends to help. Ask them to rate you on a scale of 1 – 10 for basic confidence, mood, charisma, leadership – how you show up. It’s better to ask them specific questions like, “On a scale of 1 – 10, how normally cheerful would you say I am?” If you ask them “How do I show up?” they probably won’t have a helpful answer, because they’re not used to thinking consciously in this way.
Ask your friends and family, but don’t take too much stock in particular answers. Look instead for patterns. It’s very hard for us to be objective about our closest friends and family, so don’t expect too much. If you get a consistent pattern of comments across a number of people, then those observations are more likely to be accurate.
And if you’re lucky enough to be a rising executive in a company that regularly conducts 360 evaluations, they may be extremely helpful in this regard. Once again, don’t put a lot of stock into particular comments; rather, look for patterns of comments about your usual mood, or your attitudes, or your mode of being toward employees or colleagues. Remember, people are very good at unconsciously reading the emotional attitudes of people they know well on a daily basis. We recognize when Bob comes in for work in a lousy mood, or Jane is excited about something. So look for patterns where people say that you’re tough on colleagues, or strong with employees, or warm toward everyone, or the like. Those repeated patterns of estimations of your attitudes will tell you a lot about your physical presence – because it’s from that physical presence that people figure out your attitudes.
And that’s what ultimately determines your success or failure as a speaker, a leader, or a person.
This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Power Cues, due out from Harvard next month. You can pre-order it here: amzn.to/1m0ktBA.