Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy

Here are what the power and powerless poses look like:

What is the power behind presence? Amy Cuddy, associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit, states that presence is essential for success. So what exactly is presence? There is no clear or universal definition of what presence is but according to Cuddy, presence is the ability to express oneself truthfully and congruently with how one feels acting in harmony. This seems to be similar to Bruce Lee’s definition of emotional content with regards to martial arts. In her book, Cuddy refers back to her TED talk and lists out various ways to increase your presence. Here are some of the points to the book:


1. The ability to authentically display your emotions congruently with your actions (i.e. being your true self) will help you become a more compelling person. People have the ability to see through others and whether or not they’re authentic. When you’re more authentic, others can see that you’re your real self and that they can trust you. People believe that you have to fake who you are to gain the approval of others but that actually doesn’t help you as much as you think. Several years ago, during a lab meeting in my department, I had an aha moment that acutely piqued my interest in cracking open the psychology of presence. On that day, a visiting student, Lakshmi Balachandra, was soliciting feedback about some new data. She’d been investigating the way entrepreneurs make pitches to potential investors and the way investors respond. After meticulously analyzing videos of 185 venture capital presentations—looking at both verbal and nonverbal behavior—Lakshmi ended up with results that surprised her: the strongest predictor of who got the money was not the person’s credentials or the content of the pitch. The strongest predictors of who got the money were these traits: confidence, comfort level, and passionate enthusiasm . Those who succeeded did not spend their precious moments in the spotlight worrying about how they were doing or what others thought of them. No spirit under the stairs awaited them, because they knew they were doing their best. In other words, those who succeeded were fully present, and their presence was palpable. It came through mostly in nonverbal ways—vocal qualities, gestures, facial expressions, and so on.She later states,Consistent with the findings from entrepreneurial pitches, the more presence our job interviewees displayed, the better they were evaluated and more strongly they were recommended for hire by the judges—and this effect of presence was substantial. But here’s the catch. Presence mattered to the judges because it signaled authenticity, believability, and genuineness; it told the judges that they could trust the person, that what they were observing was real… that they knew what they were getting. In short: the manifest qualities of presence—confidence, enthusiasm, comfort, being captivating—are taken as signs of authenticity, and for good reason: the more we are able to be ourselves, the more we are able to be present. And that makes us convincing. In addition, we asked the participants, after the interviews, if they felt they had done their best. Interviewees who showed more presence felt much better about how they did. They seemed to feel that they had represented themselves as well as possible. They left the interview with a sense of satisfaction, not regret, regardless of the outcome.


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2. There isn’t a single cue or action that we do that demonstrates that we’re lying; it’s actually a combination or series of various actions. When we lie, our body gives off several “tells” and others are able to pick up on them. Let me start with a question: How do you know if a person is lying? If you’re like most people, your first response will be something like ‘Liars don’t make eye contact.’ In a survey of 2,520 adults in sixty-three countries, 70 percent of respondents gave that answer. People also tend to list other allegedly telltale signs of lying, such as fidgeting, nervousness, and rambling. In an interview with the New York Times, psychologist Charles Bond, who studies deception, said the stereotype of what liars do ‘would be less puzzling if we had more reason to imagine that it was true.’ It turns out that there’s no ‘Pinocchio effect,’ no single nonverbal cue that will betray a liar. Judging a person’s honesty is not about identifying one stereotypical ‘reveal,’ such as fidgeting or averted eyes. Rather, it’s about how well or poorly our multiple channels of communication—facial expressions, posture, movement, vocal qualities, speech—cooperate. When we are being inauthentic—projecting a false emotion or covering a real one—our nonverbal and verbal behaviors begin to misalign. Our facial expressions don’t match the words we’re saying. Our postures are out of sync with our voices. They no longer move in harmony with each other; they disintegrate into cacophony. This idea is not exactly new. In fact, Darwin proposed it: ‘A man when moderately angry, or even when enraged, may command the movements of his body, but… those muscles of the face which are least obedient to the will, will sometimes alone betray a slight and passing emotion.’


3. There are two types of power: social and personal. The more important one between the two is personal power. This power is essentially power that you have over your confidence or self. The more power you feel like you have over your confidence, the more you’ll feel that you can take on. The more that you take on, the more successful you’ll become. There are two kinds of power I’d like to discuss—social power and personal power. They’re related. But they’re also dramatically different. Social power is characterized by the ability to exert dominance, to influence or control the behavior of others. Social power is earned and expressed through disproportionate control over valued resources. A person who possesses access to assets that others need—food, shelter, money, tools, information, status, attention, affection—is in a powerful position. The list of things this type of power can gain is endless, but social power itself is a limited resource. The constant is that it requires some kind of control over others.6 Personal power is characterized by freedom from the dominance of others. It is infinite, as opposed to zero-sum—it’s about access to and control of limitless inner resources, such as our skills and abilities, our deeply held values, our true personalities, our boldest selves. Personal power—not entirely unlike social power, as I’ll explain—makes us more open, optimistic, and risk tolerant and therefore more likely to notice and take advantage of opportunities. In short, social power is power over—the capacity to control others’ states and behaviors. Personal power is power to—the ability to control our own states and behaviors. This is the kind of power Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was referring to when he wrote, ‘Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.’ Ideally, we want both kinds of power, but, as Wiesel suggests, personal power—the state of being in command of our most precious and authentic inner resources—is uniquely essential. Unless and until we feel personally powerful, we cannot achieve presence, and all the social power in the world won’t compensate for its absence.


4. Feeling a bit powerless? A way to increase your feeling of power is to pose in “power positions” such as standing and stretching your arms out in a V shape. Watch my YouTube video here for the power poses. Hold this position for 120 seconds and you’ll feel more confident or “powerful.” Just as there’s a brain-body connection, there’s a body-brain connection. The way you move your body affects your brain. By standing in a “power pose” you’ll trick your brain into feeling more powerful. Power doesn’t just expand our minds; it also expands our bodies. Expansive, open body language is closely tied to dominance across the animal kingdom, including humans, other primates, dogs, cats, snakes, fish, and birds, and many other species. When we feel powerful, we make ourselves bigger. Whether temporary or stable, benevolent or sinister, status and power are expressed through evolved nonverbal displays—widespread limbs, enlargement of occupied space, erect posture. Think of Wonder Woman and Superman. Any John Wayne character. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood on House of Cards. An Alvin Ailey dancer expressing liberation and freedom. When we feel powerful, we stretch out. We lift our chins and pull our shoulders back. We puff up our chests. Spread our feet apart. Raise our arms.


5. In addition to point 4, yoga can also help you increase your confidence/ feeling of power. In yoga, there are certain poses or moves that help increase your testosterone and decrease your cortisol levels. A small study published in 2004 in the journal Human Physiology provided evidence that directly supported our predictions. The authors measured the physical effects of holding a very expansive hatha yoga pose known as the cobra for approximately three minutes. You can try it: lie flat on the floor on your stomach, legs straight behind you, feet pointed, hands on the floor, and palms down right under your shoulders so that your elbows are bent and tight against your torso. Then straighten your arms so that your upper body—shoulders, chest, and belly—is arching up off the floor, and raise your head, gaze slightly lifted, the way a cobra rears back. (You can go online and find images to guide you.) This is a slight back bend, and it’s not the most comfortable pose if you’re not used to doing it. The researchers were interested in one thing: the effect of the cobra on circulating hormone levels, including the ones that interested us—testosterone and cortisol. So they collected blood samples immediately before the participants went into the pose and again a short time after they’d stopped holding it. Here’s what they found: every participant in the study showed an increase in blood serum levels of testosterone and a decrease in blood serum levels of cortisol. On average, testosterone rose by 16 percent and cortisol dropped by 11 percent, changes that were statistically significant for both hormones. These intriguing findings showed that holding a single expansive pose can make significant, measurable differences in the hormones related to confidence and anxiety.5 But could power posing—adopting simple non-yoga-based power poses—yield the same results as yoga, whose health benefits, as we’ve seen, have been well established? And could ‘powerless posing’ do the opposite? To measure hormone changes in our experiment, my colleagues and I collected saliva samples from subjects before and then fifteen to twenty minutes after the power pose manipulation. What did we find? In our sample of women and men, the high-power posers showed a 19 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol. Low-power posers showed the opposite pattern—a 10 percent decrease in testosterone and a 17 percent increase in cortisol, the exact pattern we’d predicted.


By Ryan Timothy Lee


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1 Comment

  1. […] a brain-body connection, there’s a body-brain connection as Amy Cuddy talks about in her book Presence. “One easy way to soothe and comfort yourself when you’re feeling badly is to give yourself […]


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