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Improving Communication Through Reverse Power Poses

My Take

This paper by James Detert and Ethan Burris in Harvard Business Review has an interesting take on something that has been in the news a lot lately (and even a TED talk). The topic is “power posing” and the basic message is that if you adopt a power pose you exert a wide range of influences. It creates an internal frame by making you more confident in yourself. Even if you can’t see yourself in the pose, you know you are doing it.

Studies on power posing show that intentionally adjusting your body posture, facial expressions, and voice can help you express your ideas and concerns and win greater influence. This is true no matter what title or position you hold. Simply comporting yourself as if you’re a rung or two higher makes people act more deferentially toward you. Often, they’re not fully aware that they’re responding this way, yet the effect is in full force in any kind of hierarchy, whether it’s based on formal or informal status.

It also creates a subordinate frame in those around you. At a job interview or a business meeting, this makes it easier to establish your authority and position. In Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, she supports the idea with research showing an effect on testosterone levels (associated with power) and cortisol levels (associated with stress). Win-win.

But I prefer the approach by Detert and Burris. What if we flipped this idea over and give the other person(s) the power position? When might we want to do that? They use the example of health care. They tested the hypothesis and found that doctors can elicit more questions from patients and less intimidation.

This can also be a way to get employees to speak up to management about ideas, complaints, and bottlenecks. It can eliminate some of the CYA fear.

I do this in my classrooms. I intentionally plop down in a desk that is even less formal looking than the ones students are using. I set the height as low as it will go so the students have power positions over me (in terms of their height and because my posture is slouched down).

How about in a courtroom? Raise the level of the jury so they feel more in control and less intimidated by the unfamiliar surroundings. If you want to be manipulative, you could design a courtroom so the defense is higher than the prosecution or vice versa.

Of course there are other attributes besides body posture and height. We can apply what we know about furniture design, lighting, seating layout, voice and speech attributes such as tone and speed, and so on.

Your Turn

OK, you know the drill. Two questions:

  1. Do you think the approach is legit in general?
  2. If so, are there any specific examples you can think of? Either from your experience or from a little brainstorming?

Image Credit: skeeze

3 thoughts on “Improving Communication Through Reverse Power Poses”

  1. I definitely say this is legit. My son is 5, and when I crouch down around his friends so i am the same height they are they all come over and I am the coolest dad in the playground.
    When I’m standing I’m just another parent.

    Like the idea of the jury being higher.

    1. Edward – that is such a simple example, and yet so perfect for it. Especially with kids, it makes you seem not just like you ARE on their level, but that you WANT to be on their level. The motive makes it that much stronger.

  2. Elizabeth Cuddy, of the TED Talk power pose fame, was on On Point this morning and had a great addition to this conversation.

    She emphasized that power poses can be a source of individual confidence that does not take power away from others in the room. It is not a zero sum game. So you can increase your personal power, adding to the total power in the room in a way.

    This reminded me of the research on the ultimatum game which found that confident people are more generous. Taken together, if you use a power pose to feel more confident and end up as also more generous, everyone wins.

    Pretty cool.

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