The Power of Presence: Unleashing Your Boldest Self

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy to speak at SHRM Annual Conference

By Dana Wilkie Apr 15, 2016

If her nerves are a wreck before an important work meeting, Amy Cuddy might shut the door to her office at Harvard Business School and stand in the middle of the room with feet spread wide, shoulders back and hands on hips. Why? Because research shows that adopting expansive, powerful postures actually causes us to feel more powerful and confident.

Think Wonder Woman. Or Usain Bolt racing across the finish line, throwing his arms in the air.

Cuddy—a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition—often uses Wonder Woman imagery when describing her research on using body language to overcome fear in social interactions, whether during a job interview, when leading a work meeting, while giving a speech or when hearing negative feedback.

“It’s about how to overcome that feeling of threat, and to focus and be present in these challenging moments so you don’t walk in feeling like a frightened animal, but feeling strong and engaged with what’s actually happening—not what you fear is happening,” said Cuddy, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School. “I focus on these body-mind connections, how you can use your body to prepare yourself to feel strong. It’s something anyone can do.”

Cuddy, the author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), will speak on the second day of the conference, to be held June 19-22 in Washington, D.C.

While Cuddy acknowledged that some people at first feel silly when adopting a Wonder Woman stance or any other posture that signals dominance, she said that over time this can become second nature.
“It’s about expansive, nonverbal displays,” she said. “It could be the victory pose or having your feet up on the desk and hands behind your head.”

Cuddy doesn’t recommend striking such poses in front of people—after all, putting the bottom of one’s shoes in another’s face can seem aggressive—but instead practicing them alone to prepare for a challenging task.

“You use these postures in privacy,” she said. “When you adopt one of these expansive postures, it makes you feel more powerful and confident. It prepares you to cope better in stressful situations. Any posture that expands your body in an extreme way and that occupies a lot of space—even yoga poses—can work as a body-mind intervention. Your body is telling you that you have power.”

Cuddy’s research has sometimes focused specifically on women’s body language, especially their tendency during challenging tasks or confrontations to make themselves appear “small.” But she cautioned against assuming that there’s a large difference between men and women when it comes to body language.

“I’m reluctant to say ‘women do this’ and ‘men do that,’ ” she said. “You’re much more likely to find a dramatic difference based on personality type—introversion versus extroversion, for example.”

In fact, after giving a TED talk on her research (the second most popular TED talk ever), Cuddy said about half of the 30,000 e-mails she received were from men.

“Men are every bit as likely to feel threatened, to feel like they’re going to be found out,” she said. “They’re just less likely to talk about it openly.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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