How to change your pose to change your life

giovane donna ammira panorama alpinoCan body language, and specifically your posture influence how you think, how you feel, and how you are perceived in the world?

I think so, and that’s why I wanted to hear Dr. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” It’s one of most viewed TED talks ever.

I could see why: Cuddy’s poised, personal, and packs a powerful take-away: the idea that you can become more self assured and be perceived as powerful by simply shifting your stance for a couple of minutes.

A N.Y. Times article reported that after her talk before 1500 employees at Zappos, the lobby was packed with people trying to practice her power pose (hands on hip, legs wide.)

Dr. Cuddy teaches at the Harvard Business School, where she regularly observes the body language of alpha MBA’s – you know, the ones who seem bred for success. But she doesn’t stop at the gates to the Ivy halls. She speaks at youth shelters where they don’t understand how a caved-in posture might signify a lack of motivation. She shows youth and other disadvantaged populations how to transform their success with job interviews by using posture and poses that demonstrate confidence and power.

In her research, Cuddy demonstrated how participants in her study showed an increase in testosterone (good for self-assurance) and a decrease in cortisol (meaning less stress) after two minutes in a power pose. And they felt more confident.

To the ones who worry that the poses might feel fake, she counsels, “fake it until you make it.” The postures work anyway.

I get it. For years I’ve been helping my clients become aware of their bodies and experiment with posture when they make presentations. They’ve discovered that by using their body language they can engage their audiences more and make their stories come alive.

Still there was something about Curry’s talk that was making me squirm (not a power pose).

Maybe it was the poses themselves. Here as some power poses from her slides:

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 1.23.48 PM


Are these alpha male or what? Even seeing a woman in the pose still looks like a predominantly male pose.














Wait a sec! Does this mean that power and confidence correspond to the body language of alpha males?

And is the kind of leadership demonstrated by alpha-dominant male Harvard MBA’s what the world really needs right now?Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 1.48.26 PM

No doubt, you do need the poses at the Harvard B-School. I saw plenty of alpha dominant behavior when I attended the Yale B-school, even though we didn’t face Harvard’s fierce competition for grades. Although I never achieved alpha status at Yale, I did figure out how to stick my hand straight up in the air when I want to be called upon in an audience (a trait, Curry says, some women lack). And I know how to use my breath and my posture to assertively jump into a discussion when I need to.

But right now, I’m looking for a different set of power poses.

Look at this official White House photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, from Burma, when she met with President Obama.  She’s holding her legs together! She’s not asserting dominance! And this Nobel Peace Prize winner is one of the most powerful women (people) in the world today!

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 2.45.56 PMLast spring, I learned about the world of postures when I studied acting in expressive masks in a class run by master director/actor/teacher Arne Zaslove. Arne brought us a variety of masks: geisha, tramps, millionaires, servants, thieves, doctors and more. He told us to really feel the essence of our masks and the postures they suggested before we put on our masks. When we adopted these postures, the nature of our characters came alive. We experienced the power within the characters, whether they were high status or low status – and expanded our range of expressiveness.

Dr. Cuddy’s work demonstrates to the world the importance of body language. But we need poses that take us beyond the limits of alpha-masculine expression.

After all, we’re not all auditioning for the School of Alpha.

Why don’t we find some other postures that demonstrate the power of compassion, empathy or mindfulness, qualities well known to many women and introverts (among others).

We need a range of postures to go with new leadership models. Imagine this one: You’re in a Harvard B-school classroom and the professor gives you this assignment:

“I want you all to sit in a circle with your feet planted firmly on the ground. We’re going to take a couple of minutes to breathe together in silence. Then, after the quiet, if you have something to say that you feel will contribute to us all, please speak. Otherwise, we’ll sit in silence and try to hear any ideas that want to emerge amongst us.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing? No dominance in the circle. No battle of alpha-egos. I bet in that environment students would discover, in their bodies, a new source of power.

Thank you, Dr. Cuddy. You’ve given us good stuff. I don’t want to throw away the power poses. I just want more options.


How to Stop But-ting

512px-Goats_butting_headsIn improv, you learn what happens in a story or conversation when two partners block each other. The conversation slows, stops or becomes very boring. The most common way to block a point in a conversation is to use the word “but.”

That’s why improv teaches us to say “Yes, AND” not “Yes, But.”

There are many ways “but” can get expressed without saying the word. In fact, you can even use the word “and” to mean “but” as in “You raise an interesting point – and that’s why I think my idea is better.” Or “Yes, and of course that won’t work” (it’s too idealistic, expensive, etc.)  Other phrases to watch out for are words like “however” and “although” and phrases like “of course, that wouldn’t be feasible” or even the sneaky one, “Interesting, why don’t you research that (to death)?”

And “yes, but” isn’t always a conversation stopper.  A lot depends on your intent. You could say, “I’d love to go hiking with you tomorrow, but I hear it’s going to rain.  Shall we shoot for Sunday?” and your words would advance your plans – and lead to a good time.

In their book, Conversation Transformation (I highly recommend), authors Benjamin, Yeager and Simon offer the following exercise to help when you are beginning to argue opinions with your partner, tension is building, and you’re about to jump in and argue.

Start building rather than but-ting

When you want to encourage listening around a contentious issue, respond to your partner’s argument by first building on it. When you build, you offer true statements that acknowledge points in an opposing argument that you can agree with.

For example, you believe that taxes are needed and justified to make sure that the government can provide essential social services and rebuild our decaying transportation infrastructure. Your partner starts the conversation with:

“The trouble with America is that government has gotten too big. They are wasting our money and taxing the middle class to death. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and force the government to cut spending.”

You gulp and get ready to spring into your argument.

But first you think build…three times

You look for points in your partner’s argument with which you can agree.  And you offer three of them.  (Three can be hard – it requires you to stretch!)

  1. “I know that there have been examples of government waste and excess.”
  2. “Many middle class Americans are feeling pinched and I understand that the effective standard of living has gone down for much of the middle class,”
    and finally
  3. “It’s important to prioritize where to spend government dollars to make our money counts.”


Now the next part. Instead of jumping in with your best arguments, you offer a question about the issues that underlie both of your arguments.

“How can we curb excess federal government spending and make sure our dollars will be used well while also insuring that we have the essential government services that will keep our country strong?” 

The process of building three times and then asking a question is a skill that is easier said than done, especially when our desire to be right is so strong.  But it can keep us away from needless conflicts in relationships and promote a spirit of inquiry and discovery.

Remember to have fun!

In the class I taught on conflict last week, we supplemented these ideas with some fun improv exercises.  I used my version of the exercise “Presents” to promote a spirit of “Yes, And.”  One person gave an imaginary present, the second person named it and the third person made a comment about it.  We also had a fun time playing a “but” game where one person voices an opinion to a partner and the partner responds with a “but statement.”

As we debriefed the exercise, we observed that there are many ways to convey the spirit of “but” without using that word.

But then, I got in trouble.  (Note to readers – avoid this if you can!)

I was addressing all the ways people can say “but” without using that word and I added,

“I have a nose for “buts.”  I can smell them a mile away. “


There was silence.  Then lots of laughter.  Oh dear.  Now they have another, Sally-ism that I am sure to hear about at their graduation. At least they won’t forget the point!

How do you keep from “but-ting” in your challenging conversations?



Join OurTribe

You're forging a creative path. Join others who are leading in uncommon ways. Join us to receive regular insights and a copy of our e-book "Lead With Your Legend."

You have Successfully Subscribed!