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The Power of the Pose

Even if you don’t know Amy Cuddy, you have likely heard her message on power poses — stand like Superman or Wonder Woman and soon you’ll be feeling pretty super yourself.

Amy burst on the scene in 2012 with her TED talk on power poses, which is the No. 2 TED talk, with 32 million views. As a Harvard University researcher, Amy found that although people express their power through their body language, those poses also communicate to our own brains. If you stand like a winner in the classic pose of arms thrown up in a V, then your brain will think, “Look at that! I must be a winner!”

Amy parlayed her notoriety into a book, Presence, where she lays out the science of power of poses, but she takes it a step further. She delves into what prevents us from tapping into our own power.

But she doesn’t advocate channeling our power to dominate others but instead to communicate our authentic selves.

Who can sell well without doing that? Amy saw firsthand how selling is done right by watching her father interact with his clients in a small-town insurance agency. They bought from him because they had a true connection, not because he was a salesman.

In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Amy discusses how to bring your superpower to your next meeting.

FELDMAN: Tell us about your book Presence.

CUDDY: The book is about taking this concept of “presence” off its pedestal. Presence is often associated with some kind of lifelong journey to figure out how to become present permanently, and I don’t think that’s what presence is about at all.

Presence is about moments. And everyone has been present in some moments, and everyone has not been present in others. The idea is, how do we get the self-awareness to understand what gets us to those moments of presence? How can we make it happen when we need to make it happen?

We need to make it happen most when we’re in really stressful situations. These big challenges sap our cognitive resources and make us very self-focused and threatened. They undermine our ability to perform well. By figuring out how to become present in those moments, we can not only perform better but leave with a sense of satisfaction instead of a sense of regret.

The way I define presence is your ability to know and access your best qualities — your knowledge, your skills, your core values — and to be able to bring them forth when you most need to.

The first half of the book is understanding that notion and the authentic best self, which is another term that I think is thrown around a lot and not defined clearly. And what’s the science behind all of this? Not just a fluffy sort of old-fashioned self-help stuff.

Then moving into the second half of the book, that’s where we get into the real power of the body in how to take control of the conversation that the body and the mind are always having. It’s about how you use your body to lead your mind and talk it out of something.

FELDMAN: Some people believe that to get present, they need to use yoga or go into meditative states. But you don’t think that’s necessary.

CUDDY: I’m not an expert on them and don’t want to dismiss them. I was skeptical about how far-reaching the benefits of yoga could be and how different it really is from other exercise. But the research on yoga is really solid and mainstream. It does have enormous benefits. For me, it’s more that I don’t think you need to do these things, but if you can do them, great.

Most of us don’t have the time or resources to do them, so that’s more the point I want to make. You can benefit from holding one yoga pose for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t have to be an hourlong class every day. Now, are you going to get more of a benefit from an hourlong class? Maybe, but you certainly can get some benefit from doing only a couple of minutes.

FELDMAN: For a lot of our readers, building rapport and establishing trust quickly are among the most important things they have to do on a regular basis. What do you do in preparation for meetings so you can make sure that you’re present?

CUDDY: A problem with talking about presence is that people often talk about how to do it but not about what gets in the way of it. Things that get in the way are feelings of social threat and fear of being judged by other people and of not being confident enough or fear of not fitting in. All of these things are social fears and anxieties.

features/the-power-of-the-pose-iposture.jpgThose kinds of social traps cause us to behave like scared animals being chased by predators. The thing is, we’re not being chased by predators. Recognize that your body is going into this fight-or-flight mode and it doesn’t need to do that.

Stop and ask, “Why am I feeling so anxious about this? What’s the worst possible outcome? I don’t get the sale or I don’t get the positive review from my supervisor? Is that the end of the world or am I still the same person?”

Instead, force yourself to feel as though you’re not being chased by a predator by opening yourself up. Literally, opening your body language, pulling your shoulders back, stretching out, breathing deeply. This is communicating — so they also know you’re not in a fight-or-flight response.
All of those things calm you down and allow you to be in touch with your skills and your knowledge so that you’re not worried about being chased by predators and you’re able to actually engage in what actually happens.

All of those things also allow you to be open to others. That is key, because when you’re threatened, there’s no way you’re going to establish trust easily. Because other people pick up on that threat, and then they become a threat. They become aggressive. It doesn’t allow for openness and for real trust to be established.

When you’re present and bringing your authentic self forward, then that invites other people to do the same. Because if you trust them enough to do that, they can trust you to do it. And that’s key.

That doesn’t always mean it works in every situation. But I think the general idea is that when you say, “This is who I am,” unapologetically showing compassion toward the other person, you can build trust. You can only do that when you go in without the sense of threat.

FELDMAN: You talk about two different types of power that people need in order to be present. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

CUDDY: Power is about control over or access to necessary resources. In those terms, we usually think of power in terms of social power.
But personal power is access to and control over the resources that you possess in yourself. That would be nonphysical and psychological resources like knowledge, power, charisma and core values. Those are things that you own. They’re yours. No one else gets to control them. You do. That’s personal power, being able to access those.

And the funny thing is they’re not only at our fingertips, they’re in our brains. They can be the easiest things to access and also the hardest because fear puts up this wall between ourselves and those parts of ourselves. Personal power is the ability to bring them forward when we’re supposed to.

The reason we become virtually powerless when we feel like we don’t deserve to be there is that we think, “Who are we to share our opinions?” Or when we feel like we doubt ourselves even though five minutes before this we were fine and knew what we knew. Somehow you walk into these stressful moments and second-guess yourself.

FELDMAN: Been there.

CUDDY: Who hasn’t?

FELDMAN: What are some ways of identifying where your power is? Are people afraid of this power?

CUDDY: There are hundreds of studies or scenarios that can help you identify your core values. Let me walk you through that, because it might seem hokey, but it’s extremely robust at protecting us from threats.

This is how these studies work: First, people will be asked what makes you you? What are the things that you most care about? Make a list of these five things.

We tend to think that these five things are pretty constant across people, but they’re not. People are really different. Some might say creativity is one of those five things. Some might say helping others. Some might say being outdoors. These vary widely.

Take the top one or two and write about why they matter to you. What is it that makes them so critical to identifying who you are? Then write about a time when you were able to express those values or you were really in tune with them.

Say it’s the outdoors. Write about a camping experience that was so complete or so gratifying. Or if it’s about helping other people, write about a time when you helped people and you walked away feeling really wonderful and satisfied.

That’s called the self-affirmation theory. What happens is when people do that, as crazy as it sounds, when they go into another stressful situation such as public speaking, they perform much better. Their anxiety significantly lowers psychologically and physiologically because they know who they are and they know however they perform in that moment, it’s OK because they’re still going to be that person who cares about helping people or about their friends or about spending time in the outdoors.

It’s really incredible. You’re not saying, “I’m a great public speaker” and giving a great speech, because that’s not core to who you are. Maybe it is, but for most people it’s not. It’s got to be something you know is real and authentic about who you are. It buffers you against stress.

FELDMAN: Wouldn’t it also help because it helps you visualize?

CUDDY: Yes. Even if you’re challenged in things you don’t really like or that aren’t core to who you are. These core values unleash your talents in other areas. They allow you to be your best in these other isolated areas.

FELDMAN: One thing that I see happening a lot is distractions. Like when you’re in the meeting, trying to be present, but something catches your eye and your mind jumps. What are some ways of preventing that?

CUDDY: No one is present all the time. So I think that to hold yourself to a standard of being completely present throughout your entire meeting is not feasible. No one can completely prevent eyes wandering or those distractions from popping up.

The first thing is not to panic. A lot of people feel like “Uh-oh, I just got off track. How am I going to get on track again?” Hold yourself to a reasonable standard.

If you’re in a one-on-one meeting with a client, put away the distractors, like your phone. I know people have said this a million times: put it away.
Turn off the sound of your email. If you’re in front of your computer, turn your screen off. All those things that you can’t help but be distracted by, just shut them down and don’t let them distract you.

Even if it requires you to put a note on your door saying, “I’m in a meeting,” that’s great. I’ve learned to do that because people will knock on your door.

The kind of distraction I’d like to talk about is the distracting fear that we’re not performing well and worrying what this person is thinking about me. That is not going to help you. All you can control is how you present yourself. You can’t really control what others think of you. That’s a hard lesson we have to learn.

As soon as you start worrying about that, you start managing the impression you’re making on other people, not the impression you’re making on yourself. Research on impression management, where you’re scripting what you say and how you say it in order to please others, shows that this worry is distracting. It’s taking you away from the actual conversation. You’re meta-analyzing what others think of you, and you’re usually wrong about that anyway.

Be who you are, listen to what they’re saying and you let go of that meta-analyzing. It will not help you. You have to be some kind of social genius to be able to move fast enough and have the cognitive bandwidth to make those adjustments and do it right. If not, it comes across as inauthentic, and you come across as distracted and you kind of blow it.

FELDMAN: You have some insight into the insurance sales process because of your father. What did you learn from him?

CUDDY: My dad was a State Farm agent in a town of 2,000 people. Pretty much everybody in town went to him. They came to the office because they wanted to see him. He was really good at hearing what they were saying.

Outside of the office, he talked about himself. But in the office, he listened to his clients and made them feel heard, and that’s why they wanted to come in to see him.

He didn’t start by trying to sell them something. He started by trying to understand what it was that they needed. Listening to things allows you not only to defuse stress and anger, but it also allows you to collect information.

Ask them how you can help. It sounds like such a crazy question, but it’s so much better than doing what my bank does.

Every time I go to my bank, they try to sell me stuff. They never say, “How can I help you? Is there anything we can do to make banking easier for you?” Instead, they instantly go into sales mode, and I’m totally turned off by that. It’s like you don’t understand me. Why would I possibly buy more of your services?

But it’s the same agent type of work where you’re selling a service. You can run into skepticism and doubt, partly because it’s been done poorly by so many people who came before you. So change it. That’s powerful in itself — it’s unusual not to be that guy who’s just pushing stuff. That makes people say, “Oh, this feels different. I’m actually going to listen.”

FELDMAN: Some of the most successful advisors and agents I know swear that they don’t sell anything. They’ll even say they’re the worst salesmen that you’ve ever seen, because they just listen.

CUDDY: But they do sell. They don’t explicitly, conspicuously push stuff. We have such a horrible stereotype of sales, and it’s kind of based on automobile sales, which is so pushy and inauthentic. It’s such a game, and people hate it.

Young people coming up model themselves after those caricatures of what salespeople are instead of realizing that the best salespeople are the ones who actually shut up and listen.

My financial advisor is amazing. He’s never pushing anything. In fact, he’s talking me out of some stuff. It makes me want to give him all my business.

FELDMAN: That leads into what you describe as letting presence speak for itself. Would you tell us more about that?

CUDDY: Letting your unembellished presence speak for itself allows you to be the recipient of what others need to share. That is a way of building trust. Just being there, showing up, is very important. Especially when it’s not an easy thing to show up to.

Think of how impressive this can be. For example, statistically, there are usually more applicants than there are jobs. So most people don’t get hired for the jobs they apply for. But how often do employers call the applicant and say, “I know this is hard, and I’m sorry you didn’t get the job, but I wanted to give you some feedback because I’d love to see you do well in the future.”?

That is such a hard conversation to have. But just to show up, be present and have that kind of conversation — that speaks volumes.

FELDMAN: You have talked about power but what about powerlessness? How do we identify it and overcome that feeling?

CUDDY: It’s characterized by behavioral inhibition. When we are pessimistic about our chances of doing things well and avoid taking risks, those are the characteristics of powerlessness.

Noticing those things in ourselves tells us that something is a little off here and that’s not the orientation that will help you go through life successfully.

“Successfully” to me does not mean winning. It means feeling a sense of peace that you’ve represented yourself accurately and honorably.
Powerlessness is when you see yourself avoiding things, feeling really cynical and not being willing to get back in the saddle. You start to physically collapse and take up less space. All of those things are signals that you’re powerless.

FELDMAN: What are some strategies to overcome that feeling?

CUDDY: When you stay powerless, you don’t trust yourself. Trying to talk yourself out of powerlessness is futile. It’s a futile exercise. You feel that you’re lying to yourself, and it only accentuates the feeling of powerlessness. So that’s the worst way to go.

The connection between open, extensive body language and power and confidence is a tight link.

Instantly, when we cross the finish line first, we throw our arms up in the air in a V. All around the world and in dozens of cultures this has been shown. There’s not a culture where this hasn’t been shown.

If that’s what we do instantly when we win, then why not do that when we feel like we’re losing and turn things around?

Forcing yourself open, pulling your shoulders back, pushing out your chin, taking longer strides, slowing down your speech, taking pauses will lead you to feel more powerful.

FELDMAN: Would you say your main point is that the body leads the mind?

CUDDY: Exactly. If that’s what people take away from this, I will be thrilled. The body is in charge. It’s constantly talking to your mind, and the content of that conversation is in your control.

FELDMAN: You also talked about how using technology drains our power. You call it iPosture. Would you explain that?

CUDDY: When clinicians see somebody walk into their office for the first time, they look at body language. They’re looking for things like how much you’re slouching and collapsing, because that signals that you’re feeling pretty bad, pretty depressed. The problem is th at the exact posture that’s associated with depression is exactly what we do when we’re holding our phones. Not against our ear, but when we’re holding it to look at email and texts.

It forces us to pull our shoulders in, pull our chins down, collapse our chest, and hold our arms and hands close together, pulling us into that slouched, depressed posture.

That seems to undermine our sense of confidence and productivity. You can hold your phone up higher, and you can try to spend less time on your phone, but I’m not that hopeful that people will do that.

Instead, I encourage people to make their phone their ally instead of their enemy by setting reminders every hour to check your posture. It might be frustrating, but you will start to notice how much you slouch and you will start to correct it. It takes a while, and it might be a little frustrating, but it really changes your posture over time.

When you’re bending over your phone, the load on your neck is really heavy. That leads to all kinds of problems.

Doctors are starting to see teenagers with dowager’s hump, which they used to see in elderly women with osteoporosis. It is like a frozen knot you get in your neck. It’s not something that you can just shrug off and it goes away. You actually have to work it out with really intense massage therapy.

FELDMAN: I also wanted to talk about the imposter phenomenon. Certainly most people have experienced it at some point. Would you tell us a little bit about that phenomenon and how we can break it?

CUDDY: It’s equally common in women and men, but I think men feel more afraid to talk about it. So, it can be an extra burden for men. That’s sad, because people have labeled it a woman’s problem, which is bad for women and men.

It is that feeling that everyone else is smarter than you are, more confident, and you’re just skating by, and at any moment you’re going to be found out as a fraud. It’s pervasive, and it seems like at least 80 percent of people experience it.

It’s debilitating because it’s distracting. It’s a constant sense of social judgment, and it causes us to withdraw. It causes us to not take opportunities. It’s the same thing as powerlessness. We start to see challenges as threats instead of opportunities.

If you’re really, really in the wrong job, leave, but you’re probably not in the wrong job. This is just a common experience that most people have because most of us are walking around acting confident. So, we think, “Oh my God, I’m the only one who feels this way.” Well, you’re not.
The other thing is to accept that this will happen. I got that from the author Neil Gaiman, who has won like every literary medal that there is and has something like 20 best-sellers.

Still, every time he writes a new novel or does a new project, he has that feeling of being an imposter. But now he knows that he’ll get over it, because every new challenge can trigger those same fears and anxieties.

You just have to know that it is going to keep popping up and that you will be able to conquer it every time. So, don’t start panicking when you feel that way. Know that it will pass.

FELDMAN: You also wrote that when people are lying, their body betrays them. How can you tell somebody is lying?

CUDDY: You can tell by looking for inconsistencies between what they’re saying and the tone of their voice, what they do with their body.
If you’re telling a happy story, the words should match your facial expressions, posture and movements, so we become synchronized and harmonious.

When we’re lying, we’re telling a story we don’t believe, so we’re trying to suppress the guilt that comes with it. We’re also trying to choreograph our movements, and we don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to do all those things, so we come across as asynchronous and disharmonious.
You’re not looking for things like eye contact, because that’s a terrible predictor. There are all kinds of cultural and personality differences in how much eye contact people make.

Basically, lies leak out through these inconsistencies. Being inauthentic might not be the same as intentionally trying to deceive someone, but it comes out in the same way.

FELDMAN: Once we implement all of these techniques and strategies that you mentioned, how do you know that they are working?

CUDDY: I would say it’s not so much about concrete, measurable outcomes right away. It’s about how do you feel when you face these challenges.

Do you leave wanting a do-over and having that sense of regret, like “I didn’t show them who I really am”? Or do you leave feeling “I did the best I could, and I can accept the outcome”? That’s how you know. 

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