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Last Updated Thursday April 26 2018 10:39 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | Instant power: learn the body language of the hotshots

Nirmala Ferrao
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Yalta Conference (From left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945

One of the most iconic photographs in living memory is the picture of the “Big Three” at the Yalta conference in the closing months of World War II. Each of the three was superman in his own country, but in the new, post-war equations, there was no doubt about who was the biggest of them all. No question about which country was emerging as the new world power, nor any question about Britain’s waning political star. And we see it all being “said” in their body language, frozen for posterity in that photograph. Roosevelt has clearly taken charge: He is the centre figure in the photograph, which is visually the dominant position. His body language is expansive, open, confident. His open-legs posture is also combative because such a posture requires space and that ends up making the person look bigger. Overall, he looks cocky and smug. Meanwhile Churchill, leader of a nation with an infinitely diminished status in the emerging new order, is sitting all bunched up and closed in upon himself. He looks war-worn, saddened and sobered. Also, he doesn’t look like a fully engaged participant; he has both elbows sharply thrust out (another way of physically distancing oneself). Stalin sits stiffly, conscious of his posture. His tenseness is also evident in the forced fixity of his smile, as well as in the gridlock of his interlaced fingers.

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Without hearing a word of what was said at Yalta by these three leaders, we take in – at a glance – the cluster of body-language signals that they are projecting, and we draw our conclusions about the power play at work.

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Today’s leaders – in the political and corporate arenas, in particular – take the projection of power through body language very seriously. Many of them have been trained by body language experts. Unfortunately, most people who are not in positions of leadership still view “power” as a dirty word, something Machiavellian and to be disdained. This is a view that confuses power with arrogance. In fact, projecting power – and its handmaidens, confidence and ease – is critical to all kinds of important things in our lives: from success in handling an interview or a business meeting to success in getting things done, bringing about change, converting the opposition, swaying the undecided, garnering support for a cause, fighting for justice. If you have an ambitious agenda for yourself, you need to wield and exude power.

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And in doing this, body language can be your prime ally. It is a well-worn axiom by now: fully 93 % of what we “say” comes from our non-verbals. Only 7 % from what we actually speak. There’s nothing abstruse or mysterious about the body-language tacks and techniques that the kahunas of the world employ. They are simply bare-knuckle strategies, and you can make them your own. Here’s a look at some that you can incorporate into your personal style in a jiffy.

Take up more space. Amazing that the space you take up is a power and status statement. But it is. We see one of its most recurrent avatars in the pose beloved by many U.S. Presidents (right down to Obama) comporting themselves in the Oval Office as their advisers smile nervously — feet on the desk, fingers interlaced behind the head, elbows pointing outward. They come across as big shots without even speaking.


By way of contrast, consider the body language of a nervous, unprepared interviewee. Probably unconsciously, he makes himself physically small: shoulders hunched, hands crossed tightly on his lap (sometimes held in between his thighs), feet together, taking up minimal space with his file folder. If he took that posture to its natural conclusion, he would curl right back into the fetal position.

The bottom-lines are self-evident: Expansive, open postures (widespread limbs, the occupation of more space) project high power; constrictive, closed postures (limbs touching the torso, minimizing occupied space, and collapsed inwardly) project low power. Big is dominant, and postures that enhance a person’s apparent size cause others to treat him as if he were more powerful.

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As with most body language, the grammar is primal. The proud peacock fans his tail feathers in pursuit of a mate. By galloping sideways, the cat manipulates an intruder’s perception of her size. The chimpanzee, asserting his hierarchical rank, holds his breath until his chest bulges… And the executive in the boardroom crests the table with his feet, fingers interlaced behind his neck, elbows pointing outward. Both, high-dominance poses as well as low-dominance poses, have uniform meaning across the animal kingdom for very straight-forward evolutionary reasons: Either you want to be big because you’re in charge, or you want to bunch up, close in and protect your vital organs because you’re not in charge.

All this is well-known, of course: it adds up to the evolutionary selection of what is “alpha”. But so few people pro-actively use it to their benefit.

On the other hand, this is not a recommendation to stroll into an office meeting 15 minutes late, swing your feet up on the table and start barking orders at people. Rather, try adapting your body language so as to habitually occupy more space: stand up straighter, spread your limbs a little wider, use a moderate amount of hand gestures, and lean in more when having conversations. When you dominate the space, your mind gets the message. And so do the people around you.

Let your hands do the talking. There are more connections between our brain and our hands than between our brain and any other part of our body. That makes our hands capable of the most expressiveness. When it comes to the body language of power, hands have more to say than even the face. We can put them to work in many different ways.

Hand gestures

One is by employing the clout of the palm-down handshake. It is interesting and amusing to see today’s political leaders physically manoeuvring, manipulating the space, their entry and the time and manner in which they thrust out their hands to their counterparts so as to get in that terribly important palm-down handshake. Today, the palm-down handshake is a standard display of gravitas, but way back in the 1960s, when body language was not the buzz-word that it is today, Charisma’s favourite child, John Kennedy, already had an intuitive grasp of its moxie. In his historic debate with Richard Nixon (the first televised debate between U.S. Presidential hopefuls), when they posed for the pre-debate photo call, Kennedy strategically positioned himself so that he would get the upper hand, literally. Coming forward, he placed himself on Nixon’s right, then held out his right hand, palm down. Nixon had no choice but to hold out his right hand, palm up and open, to be grasped by Kennedy’s dominant, palm-down handshake, the resulting photograph causing Nixon to appear diminished in stature.

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Interestingly, a follow-up poll found that a majority of those who had only heard the debate on radio felt that Nixon was the victor; but the overwhelming majority of those who saw the televised enactment said that Kennedy was the clear winner. Many felt he appeared more presidential. And Kennedy went on to win that election. No small thanks to his body language. Little wonder that the palm-down handshake remained one of his favourite gestures.

What the palm-down display does is to show emphatically that a position is held confidently. This dominant gesture is in fact as old as ancient history. In Roman times, two leaders would meet and greet each other with what amounted to a standing-up version of modern arm-wrestling. If one leader was stronger than the other, his hand would finish above the other’s hand in what became known as the Upper Hand position. And it’s a good bet that this is the origin of the phrase, “getting the upper hand”.

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On the other hand, the palm-up gesture (that is, the open palm) is associated with openness, allegiance – and submission. In ancient times, open palms were used to show that no weapons were being concealed. That implication of trustworthiness has percolated right down to our times. But so have the parallel implications of acquiescence and deference. As far as the language of power goes, the maxims are now well-established: Palm down = Authority. Palm up = Compliance.

Your grip, when you shake hands, needs to be firm without being a bone-crusher. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vice-like and overly-prolonged handshake has earned him a thumbs-down from the world media which have described it as “cringe-worthy”, a “death grip” and “that never-let-me-go handshake”. His latest victim was Prince William on the latter’s visit to India earlier this year. Modi’s handshake literally left its mark on William’s palm – a clear imprint which was caught by the cameras and – along with William’s slightly pained expression – flashed around the world. A vicious handshake does not project power; it is more likely a display of passive aggression.

Modi's grip Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vice-like and overly-prolonged handshake has earned him a thumbs-down from the world media which have described it as “cringe-worthy”, a “death grip” and “that never-let-me-go handshake”.

Whether your gesture of greeting is a handshake or any other, you should get in there first. Psychologists have found, repeatedly, that the person who takes the initiative in greeting, is the one who invariably ends up taking control of the interaction and, in a group situation, taking on the leadership role.

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Walk this way. Power-striding has been a motif of confidence and authority long before it became hip and cool as the “power walk”. Examples abound, but in terms of an iconic symbol, who more than Gandhi embodied it? His enduring image in all kinds of memorabilia is his forever-striding, skinny and scantily-clad figure, staff in hand and firm of step. Veteran Indian journalists still remember a famous, long-ago Shankar’s Weekly cartoon depicting Gandhi striding along briskly, bamboo staff in hand, behind a ragged crowd. The caption read: “There go my people. And I must hurry to follow them. For I am their leader!”

Walking tall

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Whether you’re walking on to a public platform or one-to-one at work, the way you stand and your walking style are hugely important. They can convey either physical awkwardness or calm, confident authority.

To walk tall, you need to do three things:

Stand tall. In other words, your mother was right again -- don’t slouch. Stand as if you were a puppet and somebody has just pulled the string that’s attached to you.

The boss

Pull your shoulder blades down and back as far as possible. Particularly important if you spend a lot of time hunched over a desk. It’s also a good habit to practise if you generally walk with a caved-in chest.

Lift your chin and look straight ahead. Don’t look at the floor while you walk - there’s a whole new world out there waiting for you to conquer.

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Slow down. Confident people do not scrabble around like crabs in a hurry. On the other hand, there’s a difference between walking slowly with purpose -- and meandering. Always walk as if you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.

And, it doesn’t hurt to smile a little. Apart from what it does for the atmospherics, it also serves you well by helping to calm any tension or nervousness that you might feel. The more relaxed you feel, the more confidence and authority you’ll project.

At work

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist)

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