The relaxed positions have also been associated with dominance. When you don’t feel threatened by the people around you there is no need to cover and protect your vulnerable areas – you are so secure in your ability to deal with threats, or you don’t perceive other people as threats. It’s almost as if these positions are trying to say “I’m ready for a fight” or “I can handle you”. Many bosses and people in positions of power will unconsciously display these relaxed and dominant signals in the workplace, demonstrated their own high self-esteem and feelings of control.
Regardless of whether you want to appear relaxed or dominant, you always want to appear engaged. This involves maintaining good posture, whether you are sitting down or standing up. When are sitting down, try to sit with your body upright and not rely on the back of your chair for support. Alternatively, a slight lean forward suggests a stronger engagement and can go a long way towards making people like you (and therefore making your arguments more effective).
Standing upright is a skill that surprisingly few people are good at. In general, when people try to have a good posture, they overcompensate and stiffen their back too much, making themselves look awkward and stiff, but also over-straightening their back (which can cause back strain). To stand with good posture, imagine the center of your ribcage is being pulled directly upwards by a string. Your chest should be raised without being puffed out and there should be a slight and natural curve to your spine.
There is some evidence to suggest that your very body language does alter the way you feel. Relaxed, open ‘dominant’ positions are associated with the release of testosterone and ‘dominance’ hormones in the human body as well as lowering the levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.
Meanwhile ‘insecure’ and hunched positions are associated with the release of cortisol and lower levels of testosterone, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress. Ultimately, psychology seems to suggest that your body language doesn’t just display what you are feeling, but also directly contributes to your mood in a type of feedback loop. As a result learning to master body language doesn’t just enable you to understand and influence other people, but can, in theory, give you a better handle on your own emotions and mood.
It’s also important to understand body language is ambiguous. Many psychologists and body language students like to give off the impression that just by reading your body language they can infer a huge amount of information about you. This is not true. Body language, by its nature, has a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty involved. Crossed-arms for example might signal that someone is feeling insecure. However, it might also be because they are cold because they have a habit of crossing their arms, or even because they feel uncomfortable in the clothes they are wearing.
Therefore when you are trying to pick up on body language, at least to begin with, look for multiple consistent signals. Don’t just pick up one a signal and over-interpret it; take everything you see with a pinch of salt.
In the context of arguments and persuasion, you should try and alter your body language to make yourself more likable. Whilst people have a great capacity for rational and abstract thinking, in your day-to-day life people will probably accept your arguments not based upon their merit, but whether they like you and how much. In 9 out of 10 cases, the other person isn’t good to deconstruct your argument and think about its validity or the truth of its premises. They probably won’t even take a moment to consider any of your ‘points’. Instead, their response will be an emotional, intuitive gut response based on what they are feeling towards you.
It’s also important to understand that body language signals emotion, not a specific idea or intent. Let’s suppose we have accurately picked up on the signal that someone is feeling insecure, due to their posture, expression and so on. Even though we have interpreted this signal, we can still not be entirely sure why they are feeling insecure. Perhaps they are not confident in what they are saying, perhaps they are ruminating on a previous embarrassment, or they might suffer from anxiety and depressive moods.
Now finally, the last piece of advice you should take heed of is not to over-think or over-interpret. Be aware and observant, but also let your intuition and gut feeling guide you. Humans are sophisticated social creatures – managing a complex and difficult social world is what we have evolved to do and it is deeply ingrained in our brains. From the moment you were born, your brain started to interpret, consciously and unconsciously, the feelings and expressions that other people are displaying.
In other words, you are already a master at interpreting body language and expression. It’s just that all this knowledge and experience operates below the conscious level and it is often not paid attention to because we are distracted and thinking about something else. Simply paying attention and letting your brain automatically decipher what you are seeing is often the best strategy. After all, during a conversation or argument, too much is happening too quickly for you to consciously analyze the expressions and body language of everyone around you.
You can probe your unconscious mind for this information by asking yourself: what are they feeling? What impression are they giving off? Whilst not infallible, your ‘gut’ instinct will probably be much more accurate than your conscious mind.