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Do Your Words and Your Body Say the Same Thing?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 19, 2012

Are professional associates and colleagues unmoved by your carefully crafted arguments and assertions? Your body language may be undermining your spoken message.

Deborah Gruenfeld, an experimental social psychologist at Stanford Graduate School of Business advises students to spend time learning the implications of how they stand, sit, walk and how well they grasp the meaning of the way others move their bodies. Her approach is described in a Stanford newsletter.

Gorillas can beat their chests, run sideways and tear up vegetation to display dominance, but humans have to develop more subtle tactics to show they're in charge. They also have to know when it's more appropriate to appear submissive. Gruenfeld offers her MBA student some insights on how to deal with authority issues. Because most business students will need to be both leaders and followers within their hierarchies, she wants them to understand common interpretations of body positioning, movements and posture. A person seeking a promotion or pressing a new idea needs to appear in command, but cockiness maybe detrimental for a job applicant or a person joining a new group. Gruenfeld teams up with drama teachers, because actors are very good at observing and responding to the nonverbal behavior of those around them. Read about her Acting with Power class here.

Gruenfeld has her seated students practice straighten their backs, press their knees together, keep their elbows at their sides, and lean forward. She says that position announces, "I am totally in charge." Then she has them stretch an arm over the back of a chair and spread their legs. That takes up more space - and that's what high-status, dominant people tend to do with their bodies. For women, wide spread legs can appear unseemly, but they can assert dominance in other ways, with gestures and expressions.

A Stanford Business Magazine story describes recent research by Professor Larissa Tiedens on body language and leadership. While people resent verbal bullying, nonverbal communication of dominance, such as outstretched arms, flies under the radar - it is less noticed and influences others on a subconscious level. Sitting on a table, at a level higher than others, or a severe expression, are perceived as dominant. Raised eyebrows and parted lips that appear expectant are likely to seem submissive. Tiedens says she uses her research findings in her work, explaining, "I try not to stand in a small way." The magazine quotes Gruenfeld as saying acting helps students use their own voice, body and mind to play a particular role.

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