Personal Development

Body Language for Successful Women: Do you have to behave like “one of the boys” to be successful?

We are drawn to follow those who are confident and likable. Your body language influences how you are perceived; as a leader or a follower. Could a better understanding of your body language help you advance in an environment where ever finer margins separate who advances who does not?

I teach body language to anyone wishing to come across as a leader, including executives and female professionals. A common misconception is that women in, or aspiring to, positions of power in male dominated environments should look like or behave like men. In particular, they should behave like what they perceive to be an “alpha male”. Fortunately, to come across as competent and authoritative, there is no need for women to look like “one of the boys”. Just be yourself, but the most confident version of yourself.

How to be (or comes across as) the most confident version of yourself?

First of all, confidence is important because people have a tendency to associate confidence with competence. It appears that this is hardwired in the human brain from the time we as humans were hunter gatherers living in precarious conditions. When seeing someone who does not come across as confident, many may be thinking: “if you don’t trust yourself, why should I trust you to lead me?”

Confidence is projected through one’s body. Once again, this goes back to our ancestors, who had to defend themselves from attacks from animals, others within their group or enemy groups. The confident amongst them were not afraid of being attacked because they knew they could defend themselves; in other words, they believed in their own abilities. Therefore, confident people have an open and relaxed posture: they are not afraid of being attacked physically or metaphorically by others.

Relaxed and confident body language has shoulders back and open, rather than curved inwards and downwards. The head is up and level and the eyes are meeting those of others. Confident people are not afraid of looking others in the eyes and, if appropriate, smile at them. The torso is unshielded, so the hands and arms are not crossed in front of it and are not playing with or holding on to something like a handbag strap or the opposite side of the body. Confident people do not fidget or play with jewellery or their hair. If you have been doing any of this, please do not worry. There is always the chance to improve and change for the better.

Space invaders

People who are less confident can be afraid of occupying space, even the space they “have a right” to occupy. This can be the case in meetings, where they occupy as little space as possible on the “communal table”. It can also happen in person-to-person meetings, where the less confident person is almost afraid of opening up their torso and shoulders and of moving their arms and legs; sometimes they may look as though they have frozen. Please take a moment to notice whether this is you. If it is, make sure you use all the space you need: you have a right to space like everyone else!

On the other side of the spectrum are the people who have a tendency to occupy the personal space of others. You can see them in meetings taking over as much of the “communal table” as they can. Or you can see them in person, when they move in with their bodies towards others who then have to step back or retreat backwards. Often these “space invaders” will interrupt others when speaking. It could simply be bad manners or a bad habit, or perhaps they are trying to dominate and intimidate others, especially if perceived as a threat to dominate or as an easy prey because they are less confident.

How do you stand your ground when someone is trying to take over your space or interrupting you?

Some people can react by getting angry with “space invaders”. That is totally understandable and a reasonable response, but reacting with anger will probably make you look weak and defensive and possibly unprofessional. Another common reaction is feeling intimidated and withdrawing into oneself. This is an entirely understandable response as this is exactly how “space invaders” aim to make you feel.

The first step is to understand how you are feeling and why, so that you can put aside your feelings and react calmly and confidently. Secondly, have a set of ready sentences to say to the person or to the group, such as “I see you have your things where I need to put my laptop. Please move them to your side so that I have enough space for my things.” If you are interrupted and you think you were not able to finish a valid point you were making, it would help to let the person finish and then say “Before John intervened to make his point, I was going to say…”

It is essential that you always say them calmly and assuredly, without anger, resentment or fear. If you can, smile confidently. Otherwise others may think you are petty for making these points or you are a victim. The problem with coming across as a victim is that victims are not leaders. The message you want to convey is that “you can try to take over my space, or you can try to interrupt me, but it will not intimidate me and I will still assert myself regardless”.

If someone is moving into your personal space, the best response is simply to stay put with confidence. If they are leaning in with their torso expecting you step backwards and you do not, it is likely that they will feel off balance and will retreat. They are unlikely to try that trick with you again as they will have probably felt rather silly without understanding why. Staying put, it does take a certain level of confidence and awareness of what is going on.

If you are unable to do it and you feel you are retreating from someone moving forwards, you may tell them “It looks like you are stepping forward quite a lot: have you got enough space?” Always say this in a matter of fact, calm and assured way, without any trace of resentment, anger or frustration. This way you are letting them know you understand what they are doing and you will not stand for it.

Practice makes perfect

The best thing about this is that, even if you are not naturally confident, you can train yourself to come across as confident. Body language is just a habit, or a series of habits. Practise open and relaxed poses in front of a mirror or in situations where you feel comfortable, such as with friends and family; if you notice your shoulders are closing in or you are not occupying the space you need, correct yourself.

If you are interrupted or someone takes over your space and you can’t think the right thing to say, please do not worry. It happens to everyone. Just have compassion with yourself, treat yourself kindly and make a note of what happened and how you could react more assertively. Next time you will do well!

Anyone can do this. With time, patience and perseverance, you will be able to change your body language habits to help you achieve what you want to achieve.

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