When we think of boxing matches and what helps an opponent win or lose in the ring, most of us think of strength, speed and agility. And these are all true. But professional boxers will tell you that a lot happens before the opponents even set foot in the arena, well before the first punch is thrown. The way the fighters carry themselves--how impressive and intimidating they seem--can play a decisive role in the fight that follows.
Imagine a very large gorilla whose territory has just been invaded by a rival. This alpha gorilla is furious. He goes charging through the jungle, climbs to the highest branch of the tallest tree he can find, and from there wants to broadcast his presence all around and intimidate the rival off his territory. What would he do?
One immediate action would be to inflate his chest and pound it with his fists--both of these actions have the effect of making him look bigger. The pounding also makes him loud and scary. That's what a gorilla charging through the jungle wants to look like: big, loud, and scary. In human terms, we read confidence the same way: how much space people are willing to take up.
Deborah Gruenfeld, organizational behavior professor at Stanford business school, says, "powerful people sit sideways on chairs, drape their arms over the back, or appropriate two chairs by placing an arm across the back of an adjacent chair. They put their feet on the desk. They sit on the desk." All of these behaviors, she says, are ways of claiming space.
You can practice adopting a "big gorilla" posture at home or in the office. This is a great exercise to use before any meeting or interaction where you want to both feel and broadcast confidence--for instance, before a job interview, or before meeting someone who's a bit intimidating.
Once you know how to stand and move like an alpha, you'll learn to speak like one too.
Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth [Portfolio, $25.95].