We have known for a long time that there is a relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and what we do.
Cognitive behavioral therapists often refer to this as the cognitive triangle (pictured below). For example, if we tell ourselves, “This is going to be hard,” we often feel overwhelmed or scared, and our hearts beat hard. In another example, if we use a growth mindset perspective and remind ourselves, “I’ve got this,” we may feel more confident and stay calmer. When we teach our bodies to relax, oftentimes our thoughts and feelings follow suit. Our physical posture changes our thoughts and feelings.
Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School, has published a series of articles and a book on a related phenomenon.
She calls the nonverbal communication “presence.” Her work has found that people who adopt a strong physical posture, or “open pose,” prior to a high-stakes social evaluation improved performance on the task. So basically, by changing the body, the thoughts, feelings, and other associated behaviors also changed. By adopting expansive postures, people feel more powerful. There were mixed findings on how much the pose resulted in hormonal and physiological changes, but the effect of posture upon feelings of power was since replicated in nine other published studies from nine different labs.
I can think of an example of this that happened in my life.
When I was a student, I had a good friend and peer mentor. Whenever she singled out by a professor for her thoughts, she would draw back her shoulders, stand straight, and speak confidently. The first time I saw her do this, I was amazed at her physical response. Afterwards, I tried to picture her response when I was in a similar situation, terming her very intuitive posture the “puff-up technique.” It was amazing how well it worked to help me stay confident in a tremulous situation. I have used this approach with patients for many years, particularly as they prepare to talk to someone challenging or difficult.
When I read Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, I was delighted to see the research on “presence” or how open or expansive postures change a person’s thoughts and feelings of an event. In addition, they also change how other people respond. Social psychology research also finds that people often respond to the open postures with more respect, regardless of how accurately the speaker shares information.
How can you use this information on postures?
Let’s say you have a big presentation coming up, or you need to have a difficult conversation with someone at school or work. Practicing a power pose may help.
Find a power pose that works for you.
It could be the classic “Superhero Pose,” the YogaTree Pose, or the Yoga Mountain Pose. It could be any pose that helps you to feel open and powerful.
Practice saying what you need to say in this posture, over and over.
Practice feeling open and powerful while saying your words.
Prior to the conversation or giving the speech, practice your power posture in the mirror for a few moments.
Notice how your body feels, how it feels to be powerful. Take some deep breaths and enjoy this feeling.
When it is time to do the presentation or have the conversation, use a powerful stance. Do this, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable.
Keep facing your fear. The more you use this stance, the more comfortable it will become.