Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 8, 2016

Listening to yourself

Every time I enter the classroom before one of my lectures at Kansas State University, I remind myself to stand up straight, walk confidently, look around the room and smile. Mom and my teachers always told me to watch my posture and, most of the time, I do. They told me it made me look better, but they also said it would make me feel better. They were right. My students seem to respond as well and are more likely to engage in classroom discussions.

Research from a Harvard business school professor and others confirms that sage advice. I recently listened to a National Public Radio "Here and Now" segment during which Amy Cuddy discussed her new book, "Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges".

In the book, Cuddy talks about how body language shapes who we are and how "power poses" - such as putting hands on hips, feet apart and chin up - can actually improve performance.

We've all seen how athletes put power poses into action. Runners stretch their legs and put their arms high into the sky before getting into position. Football players run onto the field with their chests puffed out. Basketball players run onto the court and give each other "high-fives." They do it to get their blood flowing, but they also do it to feel confident and in control.

Performers also use these techniques. David Letterman used to run onto the Ed Sullivan stage when he hosted his "Late Night" show on CBS. His successor, Stephen Colbert, comes out on stage every night with a big smile and his arms extended in greeting.

Husband Art, who also taught at K-State, told me he employed similar approaches. He said he often entered his classroom singing a song with his arms apart in an expansive gesture as if he was on a theater stage. He did it to get his students interested, but he said it also made him more excited about teaching the material. He even began to refer to going to class as "show time."

The study of body language is nothing new. Body language, as defined by dictionary.com, is: "nonverbal, usually unconscious, communication through the use of postures, gestures, facial expressions, and the like."

Most studies have concentrated on how our body language affects others' perceptions of us. Cuddy turns that on its head, saying that body language is also our conversation within ourselves:

... Although our body language governs the way other people perceive us, our body language also governs how we perceive ourselves and how those perceptions become reinforced through our own behavior, our interactions, and even our physiology.

Cuddy was a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder when she sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. Her doctors told her she wasn't likely to fully recover, and should anticipate significant challenges finishing her undergraduate degree. Her IQ test scores fell by about 30 points.

She said for a long time after the accident, she wanted to make herself "tiny and protected." But she went on to complete her undergraduate studies in social psychology and then earned both a master's and a doctorate in social psychology from Princeton University. She has done research on many topics, including stereotyping and discrimination, nonverbal behavior and communication, and hormonal responses to social stimuli in everyday situations.

She said the way we currently work and spend leisure time slouched over computer keyboards or hunched over smart phones reinforces our feelings of powerlessness These "powerless poses" can lead to depression.

She suggests that expansive poses - such as standing like "Wonder Woman" or opening ourselves up like "Starfish" - are useful before we go into situations where we'll be judged by others. These include interviews, speeches and other similar settings. But they're also useful even when we're just sitting at our desks. Her tips are to walk more, check our posture every hour, and put pictures high on the wall so that we have to look up to see them.

In my Oct. 30, 2015 column, "Smile," I wrote about how scientific research has shown that when people adjust their bodies to duplicate how they look when they are feeling certain emotions, their bodies produce physical changes such that they feel the emotion. So when people force themselves to smile, they actually feel happier, if even just for a moment.

In her book, Cuddy amplified this point:

Your body shapes your mind. Your mind shapes your behavior. And your behavior shapes your future. Let your body tell you that you're powerful and deserving, and you become more present, enthusiastic, and authentically yourself. So find your own way to starfish up!

So it isn't just the other people in the room who are responding to what your body is saying. You are also "listening" to yourself.

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