Those interested in the study of body language had a fascinating opportunity this week to study two completely different approaches to power through non-verbal communication: the Pope and Donald Trump. The Pope, as all the world must know, was visiting the US for the first time, and Mr. Trump was all over the media, as per usual, but on “60 Minutes” for the first time on Sunday.

Trump, of course, has been dominating the political discourse – if you can call it that – in the United States all summer long and now into the fall. The Pope makes news wherever he goes. Both are examples of alpha males in very different circumstances and roles – but what about their body language? Is it the same, or does it differ?

Let’s take Mr. Trump first. He effortlessly dominated the “60 Minutes” reporter in front of him by controlling the space between them. To watch Mr. Trump in action is to watch the classic alpha male in sales mode, taking charge of the conversation and the human interaction despite the best efforts of the reporter to keep up.

Trump leans in, reaching out with his hands. In contrast, the reporter is at the back of his chair, leaning back, with his hands in front of his face, desperately trying to keep control of the space that Trump has already won. Trump’s hand gestures are also open – which is why America has taken to him. His body language is saying, “I’m not hiding anything. What you see is what you get.”

Trump’s feet are outside of the reporter’s, so that his stance wraps around the other man’s – putting Trump completely in control.

Trump is nodding, and his voice is authoritative. Not for him the uptick so many less confident people use. He’s all authority, so that his voice sounds resonant and assured.

On body language alone, it’s Trump 1, reporter 0. What about the Pope?

Where Mr. Trump dominates space, the Pope dominates space and time. It’s a completely different approach. And it’s even more authoritative in the end.

Of course, the vestments and setting of the ceremonial side of the Pope’s job are meant to increase his authority. He’s raised up, set back, and surrounded with gold, frankincense and myrrh, at least figuratively speaking.

Beyond that, however, notice how little the Pope moves. He has no need to crowd other people’s space, like Mr. Trump, because in the end he’s not really selling anything. He makes people come to him. And he slows time down, by speaking slowly and deliberately, slowing down the pace of the interaction, making others come to him and wait for him.

Like monarchy, the Pope gestures minimally, holding his body still, slowing down the tempo of his communications. The effect is to make people move into his orbit, again waiting on him. It’s a different kind of control, one that ultimately means that anyone who seeks to interact with him must do so on his terms.

You could presumably fight back with Mr. Trump, attempting to control space as aggressively as he does. But you can’t duke it out with the Pope, because, by slowing down the interaction, he makes time his own. All you can do is wait.

Two different approaches to power. Two very different kinds of power – the power of the salesman and the power of the statesman. And two completely different kinds of body language. There’s no question which is the more powerful in the end.


  1. Great analysis. But if the Pope were a gorilla, I doubt you would call him an alpha male. His body is always slightly stooped forward, his head always bowed below others when he shakes hands. To me he comes across as a kindly, gentle, and humble. I’d expect his handshake to be weak, submissive. John Paul was much in the same mold. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, came across as an alpha male — imperious and even malevolent.
    But I agree with you that this body language only makes him more effective and powerful.

    1. Exactly, Andrew — what makes the Pope interesting is that tension between clearly being the world figure that draws others to him — and humility. It’s how he pulls it off that is so fascinating. He may be “kindly, gentle and humble” but he makes you wait for him.

  2. HI Nick

    Nick – Brilliant observation and post! The thing you note is the difference in style between someone who is dynamic, asserts energy and someone who is magnetic, receives energy. Often the difference between extravert and introvert. Each is powerful but in its own way.

    Perhaps an even more powerful style would be someone who can do both at the same time. That would make someone truly both dynamic and magnetic. Bill Clinton was able to do both.

    I will be sharing your post with clients I am training to transform fear of public speaking by learning to develop presence and to make receptive connection with listeners. Your example will help me distinguish the old valued style from a new more authentic style.

    Sandra Zimmer

    Sandra Zimmer

    1. Thanks, Sandra! I like the magnetic-dynamic distinction. I think the introvert-extrovert distinction is less useful for public speakers, because I have seen so many introverts make excellent speakers, and so many extroverts need a lot of work. The point for introverts is that public speaking takes a lot of energy, and they need to recharge afterwards. Extroverts, by contrast, feed off the energy of the crowd.

  3. For an equally striking contrast in body language, consider Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s welcome speech to the pontiff at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

    Dolan, of course, is a force of nature–and a force of/for tremendous good. Yet I felt his greeting lacked deference and in no way mirrored the Jesus-inspired humility of Pope Francis. During his delivery, the Stentorian Dolan repeatedly gestured toward the pontiff with jabbing index finger, then closed his speech by enfolding the pontiff in a massive bear hug. Chalk it up to exuberance, but this isn’t exactly beta-male behavior.

    As I watched, I thought: What Would Nick Think?

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