Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)
Part I. THE STORIES OUR BODIES TELL
Chapter 4. Standing Tall
“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”
HIPS, LEGS, AND FEET
We so rarely think about how we move in space and time. But movement, similar to posture, facial expressivity, and all the other ways we inhabit our body, has a huge impact on how we feel and the influence we have on others. Your walk is as much your signature as your voice is. Hips, legs, and feet—the bottom half of us—rarely get the kind of attention that we give our faces, hair, and hands. They should, as they significantly affect how we are perceived.
A client was sent to me to increase her executive presence because she was being considered for a promotion, but there was something stiff and rigid about her style. She was smart but lacked warmth. Her movements were sharp and fast-paced. She was an avid runner and quite thin. At work, she didn’t walk; she flew. Those who knew her well accepted her pace. But people unfamiliar with her rapid pace would think, what’s the crisis? She appeared out of control, even though that was not the case. But her too rapid pace set off alarms in others. As someone being considered to be head of communications for a multimedia conglomerate—itself often in the news—her style needed to shift. She was in front of the media and senior management, presenting constantly. We worked long and hard on modifying how she moved. We slowed down her walk, relaxed her stride. This was hard and took a lot of time, work, practice, and concentration on her part, but the change was remarkable. By just slowing her pace, she was able to shift how she was perceived. Equally important, slowing down enabled her to perceive things differently. It’s akin to what you can absorb when driving at 30 miles per hour versus 70. The details that one loses when in a state of hyperspeed suddenly come into focus and can be analyzed and appreciated quite differently. The change in her pace also had a huge impact on her sense of calm and control. Her newfound ownership of time did not end with her body alone. Calmness, like a breeze, can flow across a room and ease the stress and anxiety of others. (Recall how pilots use just their voices to calm those aboard planes, as mentioned in Chapter 2.) As she relaxed, those around her relaxed, too. She was not known for being a particularly warm person, but as she slowed down her walk, her style began to shift and soften.
Every workplace has its unique culture, and I can quickly tell if an organization is lively, inventive, and welcoming by something as basic as how people walk and move. Do I hear laughter? Are people casually chatting? Do people make eye contact and smile when they see each other? Do they walk down hallways in ways that are comfortable and relaxed? Is there an office energy? Or is the environment airless and shut down? (Once, when interviewing for a certain firm, I was told, “We are a slate gray and navy blue company. No pink skirts or shoes here.” Needless to say, I didn’t pursue the opportunity. On the other hand, I was grateful the company was so clear about its style.)
In the work environment, what is the proper balance between exhibiting one’s own sexual energy and life force and slipping too far, bordering on the inappropriate? Obviously, men and women bring different energies, styles, and approaches to all sorts of challenges, and those differences should be welcomed and explored by all organizations. By repressing our life force and gender orientation, we disable powerful forces of creativity and problem solving. Hips, legs, feet, and walks are a good place to explore the degree to which an organization is rigid, overstressed, or relaxed.
As a casual observer, I’ve noticed that one of the deals we’ve made for the workplace to be safe is for it to be sexless. I’m in no way suggesting that workplaces should be full of romping, sexed-up employees! The office is not the place for that. What I am suggesting is that people not become wooden, cutoff, asexual drones forbidden from expressing the vital energy that is at the core of our very existence. One thing that strikes me at many organizations is how much overt sexism is present and how much sexuality is absent. (I have observed the most blatantly sexist, demeaning signage in a women’s restroom, literally instructing them on how to wipe and flush. At the same organization, I asked some men if there were any instructions in their restroom. I received a blank stare, followed by, “What the heck are you talking about?”)
The core, as I see it, is a behavioral defeminization many women attempt in order to be taken seriously by men and an excessively remote style affected by men to avoid being perceived as sexual predators. This directly affects the impact of communication. Libido, or life force, is powerful stuff, which puts us in touch with different points of view. By not repressing it, we allow for a far more inclusive, creative environment.
How to bring that life force at the core of one’s gender into the workplace or into a presentation without it becoming a derailer—or having the PC police called in? Simple. Instead of gender, think charm; instead of flirting, think warmth. Charm, warmth, openness—these are assets belonging to all of us irrespective of gender. When, in order to be taken seriously, we cut off our life force, dampen down our joy and sense of fun, we also suppress some of our greatest gifts. Being warm does not mean being weak. Women and men confuse and limit themselves when deciding that softer, more “feminine” modes of expression make them vulnerable or weak. Similarly, a “hard” affect, with its attendant lack of charm, limits and cuts off the very qualities that are delightful and engaging. Think about your own work relationships. With whom would you rather work, someone who is open, warm, fun, and engaging or someone who is tight, cut off, and demanding? What happens inside your body—observe those microfeelings and signals you experience—when heading into a meeting with someone warm and open versus cold, bossy, and humorless? Remember, everything is situational. Certain communications and circumstances require a harder affect. What matters is that your ability to manifest warmth and charm is not extinguished due to the culture of your organization.
TRY THIS: BEACH WALK
Do this at home. Close your eyes. Imagine you are at the beach. Hear the surf; feel the sand between your toes and the sun on your skin. Now, open your eyes, keeping them down, and slowly walk around your yard or home with that mental imagine. Notice your pace and how the hips and legs move. What happens?
TRY THIS: OFFICE WALK
Do this at home, too. Now mentally put yourself at the office. Do your office walk. What does that feel like?
We cannot, and should not, walk at the office in the same manner as we do when at the beach. Such a slow, languorous style would be situationally inappropriate. Nonetheless, the impact on the hips and their range of motion when we’re tense and walking stiffly can be significant. Is there a way to find a blend between the two?
Think back to adolescence and try to recall how and when you grew. It’s fascinating how growth spurts that happen between our preadolescence, puberty, and mid-teens can impact one’s habits and gestures throughout life. A female client, over six feet tall, grew almost a foot taller than all her classmates in junior high. She tried to make herself shorter by habitually crunching her lower abdomen and hips and bending her knees. In attempting to hide her height, she actually drew attention to it. On the other end of the spectrum, a male client, who never reached the height he’d aspired to, constantly went up on his toes when presenting. Both of these distracting compensations began when they were adolescents and remained well into their professional lives.
When I observe deeply ingrained compensatory movements and gestures, I often ask the client to describe what he or she recalls from growth during puberty. Not always, but often, there is something about how the body changed during that critical time that made the client attempt to hide or compensate for that change. That period of life is rife with self-consciousness. Eventually we grow up and learn to live with and perhaps even enjoy the new body we occupy. But if a gestural, postural, compensatory habit begun around puberty becomes integrated into the deep layers of muscle memory or movement, it can remain part of one’s signature style of movement from then on. Creating the link to the memory is the first step. Practicing new, more aligned habits of movement is the next. Finally, I encourage my clients not just to accept their body as it is, but to own it. Own your full height if, in your 13-year-old mind, you are still too tall. Own your size if, in your 16-year-old mind, you are too fat. Awareness of the habit, integrating new ways of moving to break the habit, and ultimately embracing new ways of conceptualizing the body is a liberating process.
So much is communicated by how we move, and often that movement is restricted by the pelvic girdle in the hip area. The pelvic girdle is the linchpin of our posture, as it unites the upper and lower halves of our body. The lower half is designed for motion: running, walking, climbing, kicking; the upper half for throwing, grabbing, carrying, hugging. The hip and pelvis region functions as both a hinge and a fulcrum, allowing the spine to be flat or bent and, when necessary, to be quickly hoisted upward. Unfortunately for many, the pelvic and hip region moves in a dysfunctional way. The most common manifestation of this movement is a lumbar arch in flexion. The lower spine has a lovely arch that curves slightly forward, toward the belly. But when the lumbar arch is in flexion, usually from years of sitting improperly with the mid-body collapsed, many suffer from an arch that’s curved outward. The result manifests throughout the rest of the body in many, often troubling, ways.
TRY THIS: SEATED PELVIC TILT
As you sit with feet flat and about 10-12 inches apart, knees at right angles, gently bend at the waist and slowly roll the pelvis backward so that the lower back curves toward the back of the chair. Now roll the pelvis forward so that the lower abdomen comes forward and the arch in the lumbar, or lower back, region is exaggerated. Roll backward and forward slowly, feeling the lower back move through those two extremes. Find the midpoint, where the back has a slight curve forward and the weight is evenly distributed on the two sits bones at the base of the hips. How does this compare with your usual posture while seated?
TRY THIS: BELLY DANCE
Come to a standing position and bend your knees slightly. Bend forward and place your hands on your knees. Curl the lower back by bringing the lower abdomen toward the floor, which will arch the lower spine; then reverse the curl, bringing the lower abdomen upward and moving the lower back into flexion toward the ceiling. Repeat this 10 to 15 times. This is also a great way to warm up the lower back and bring circulation to that region of the body. Remove the hands from the knees and stand straight. Now add side-to-side movements, swaying the hips from right to left. Finish with full hip circles, moving the hips in large, wide circles starting on the right side, moving forward, then to the left, then back, and to the right. Do three or four circles in that direction, and then go the other way.
TRY THIS: OPEN HIPS
After completing a few hip circles, grab hold of a chair or something comparable for balance. Bend the right knee, open the knee out to the right side, and circle the leg a bit behind you and then bring it forward. Rest the right foot on the floor and then repeat the motion. Do five or six knee circles with the right leg and then five or six with the left. This rotation helps to loosen up the hips and pelvis.
TRY THIS: TAKE A THOUGHT FOR A DANCE
Before a high-stress presentation, combine the point-of-view exercise “Take a Thought for a Walk,” described in Chapter 1, with movement. Put on some earphones, play your favorite upbeat song, think the thought, or point of view, and let yourself dance to the music. Listening to music is a great way to shift point of view and evoke different emotions. Since we often associate memories with music, it’s good to create your own go-to playlist for different situations. Just listening and dancing along to a few bars can work wonders for your state of mind.
When seated at your next meeting, pay close attention to where your hips and pelvis are positioned. Many people tend to put the bulk of their weight on the mid- and upper rear end, leaving a large space between the lower back and the chair. This is fine as an occasional go-to position, but not a position in which to remain hour after hour after hour. It puts a lot of strain on the lower back and creates a collapsed middle. As much as possible, attempt to sit on the sits bones, with your arms resting on the table, not your lap. This position allows you to turn your upper torso quickly to face someone on either side of you. It communicates energy and looks more engaging.
With the exception of buying shoes—or wearing ones that hurt!—hardly any people think about their feet. But we should. Feet are our connection to the earth, our movable roots. They greatly influence our pace, our sense of being grounded, and our ability to stand firm and tall. Feet also express feelings. Happy babies frequently express those emotions by vigorously wiggling their legs and feet. Adults, when impatient or in a hurry, will often tap their feet or unconsciously shake their legs and feet. When presenters are nervous, one tendency is to shift the weight from foot to foot or take small steps backward and forward. One client, when presenting a new idea, literally took a step back with each new slide. By the time he got to his sixth slide, he was almost against the rear wall of the room. It was as though his feet were backing him away from his very own suggestions. There’s subtext again!
TRY THIS: FEELING FEET
As you sit, wiggle your feet as though you are excited. Now tap your feet, as if in a hurry or impatient. Now, keeping your toes on the floor, quickly lift the heels up and down, shaking the legs as a result. What does each of these foot movements make you feel?
Feet are amazingly structured and incredibly complex. The arch of the foot (there are actually three, but most know only the large one at mid-foot) must support weight and provide stability, while the joints, muscles, and bones must be flexible and adapt to changing surfaces. Propulsion, bearing weight, and balancing are the three critical functions of the feet. To be centered before delivering a communication, whether seated or standing, proper use of the feet is essential.
TRY THIS: CENTERING
To use the feet effectively, your weight should be distributed evenly and the toes engaged. Stand, making sure your knees are aligned over the ankles and not locked, your hips are over the knees, and your legs are hip-width apart. Your ribs should feel lifted off the hips, not thrust forward. Imagine your head floating. Shift your weight slightly from your heels to the balls of your feet a few times and then find center—where the weight is distributed evenly between the heels and the balls. This stance is both powerful and grounded, as well as instantly flexible and ready for action. Now press your toes into the floor as though they are grabbing a tree limb. You will feel the quad muscles in your thighs engage and your body shift slightly forward of the center of gravity. The bottom half of your body will root itself like a tree trunk.
TRY THIS: LAUNCH
Become centered as described above, press the toes into the floor, take a deep breath, and smile. This is charm rooted in strength and warmth with stability. Now take that feeling on a walk. Walk around your living room and see how it feels to launch your gait from a grounded stable position.
TRY THIS: LONG STEP/SHORT STEP
Take a walk and expand your gait by just a few inches. What does that feel like? How does that impact your walk and sense of self? Now do the opposite. Shorten your gait by just a couple of inches. What does that feel like? Now speed up that shortened gait. What message might that send to those around you? Now slow it down. Explore varied paces and lengths of gait to see how they make you feel and also what they signal outward.
I recall reading about a study years ago in which muggers were asked to watch videos of different people walking and identify whom, based on their walk, they would mug. It turned out that instinctively they chose people whose gaits were either too short or too long for their heights, thus making them slightly off balance and easier to destabilize.
For presentational situations that are more formal, keep in mind that you are on stage from the moment you leave your seat. If there is a rather long distance from your seat to the stage, make sure that your walk, pace, and posture are in a style that best signals your presence.
Consider your walk as your metaphor. I had a client who was a “stomper.” Her heels hit the floor with such force when she walked that she could be heard approaching several moments before her actual arrival. Her colleagues and reports would tense up at the sound of her approach. Her walk was also a physical manifestation of how hard she stomped on herself. A perfectionist, she was very demanding of herself and others. While we worked to adjust and soften her style, I didn’t ask her to tiptoe, but I did suggest she try to walk without making such a racket. I hoped that by softening her inner critic along with her outer movements, the two, in tandem, might allow her to ease up on herself, while also letting her be perceived more positively by her colleagues. She was delighted to report that once she’d quieted her walk, those who’d formerly tensed up at her approach confessed that just hearing her coming always made them anxious. Even more exciting, stepping lightly became a reminder not to be so hard on herself.
Another client was great one-on-one but felt shy in groups, finding it difficult to contribute. He’d see a small group of coworkers chatting and want to join in but had trouble entering an ongoing conversation. I suggested he try the toe exercise (“Centering”) mentioned above, to stand tall, gently press his toes into the floor, and feel his legs become a great tree trunk of support. I asked him to imagine that he was not joining or jumping into a conversation, but warmly inviting the coworkers into his, playing the host. The mental shift, along with the slight adjustment and awareness of his toes, gave him the confidence to get out of his head and into the conversation. He reported back that he’d had no idea that toes could be such a powerful influence on confidence.
This feeling can be evoked also while seated.
TRY THIS: SITTING TALL
It’s very simple. Rather than slouching, allow the back to be straight and the sits bones at the base of the hips to support the body. Bend the knees at 90 degrees, place the feet flat on the floor, and press the toes gently into the floor. Place arms on the table without collapsing and without putting a lot of weight or leaning on the arms. Just let them rest comfortably.
TRY THIS: WALK COPY (Part One)
When you head home from work today and are walking from your office to your car, bus, or train, pick someone about 10 feet ahead of you and copy that person’s walk. I can imagine the resistance: “What if someone sees me?” “That’s weird!” “Why would I?” First off, no one is watching, and strangers don’t know your particular walk. Why do this? Because of what you will learn by briefly slipping into another body’s story, style, and pace. By leaving your habits and muscle memory, you will experience how this makes you feel, how this makes you perceive, and how this makes you think. Give it a shot. It’s fabulously fun and amazingly insightful to become another body’s story. While you’re at it, slip into another gender’s walk, and other ages as well. You’ll be amazed by what you will feel and experience.
By briefly playing with how you walk and move, you will begin to physically and psychically experience slipping into another way of seeing what’s around you. Your feelings will shift; you will notice things differently. Don’t worry about being perfect in your imitation. Striving for perfection will take you away from the experience and put your focus on the wrong thing. It is the spirit of the movement, the gesture, and the signature of another person’s walk that will allow you to get a different perspective on how you yourself move, experience, and think. It’s fun! Allow yourself to have fun and see what happens. Keep it up for several minutes. Relax into it, play with it, and see where the imitation leads you.
I suggested this exercise to a client who would fly in from Europe to New York to work with me. “But what if someone I know sees me?” he protested. I reminded him that (a) it was dark outside, (b) he was far from home, and (c) the likelihood of anyone noticing was remote. He resisted nonetheless. I felt that for him in particular this exercise would be very helpful in loosening up his style (he tended to be stiff and somewhat judgmental). About three weeks later, I received this text: “I am now following young Japanese girls, old African men, Italian teenage boys… . I cannot stop and am having the time of my life. Thank you.” Many clients have reported back that they do this very frequently, as it is not only really fun but an amazing insight into others that they’ve never been able to experience any other way.
TRY THIS: MINISTRY OF SILLY WALKS (Part Two)
If you’re a Monty Python fan, then you know the above reference to John Cleese’s sketch and his hysterically funny Silly Walks Department. If not, check it out. If you allowed yourself to do the “Walk Copy” above, you can go even farther with it. Once you’ve walked another’s walk, speed it up, slow it down, really exaggerate it. Take big, absurdly long strides. Follow those with tiny rapid ones. Move the hips and arms in grand motions. These variations and exaggerations will only deepen your awareness of the impact and power of the bottom half of the body upon the upper half. And since this exercise is all about exaggeration, it’s another opportunity to see if your judge permits you to play or not. Both of these exercises can increase your ability to feel your signature walk. Playing with habitual movements can reveal if they need to be adjusted, updated, or improved.
Humor is another aspect of the climate of a workplace, and while tricky to navigate, it is another aspect of fun, warmth, and charm. Can one include humor in a presentation? If so, what kind of humor? Off-color jokes, sarcasm, “funny” put-downs—there is a very fine line between funny and mean, and all of the above should be avoided. But humor, the ability to laugh at oneself or a given situation, provides balance and perspective and enables us to detach a bit from the all-important seriousness with which we take ourselves and our work. Laughter is the best de-stressor there is and is good for the body and the soul. It gives a fresh perspective and creates bonds. “Oh, but I’m not funny,” people say. “I can’t make jokes.” I caution all those who lack a good sense of humor not to attempt being a stand-up comic. It will not work. But humor is not about the ability to come up with one-liners. The root of funny is “fun.” Humor is a perspective and point of view; it’s all about the spirit of how one looks at things. Life force, gender, humor, point of view, perspective—these are the soft skills of success that cannot be ignored. These are the human traits that build trust, kinship, rapport, and collaboration.
When preparing a presentation, depending on the goals and your audience, it’s good practice to think about places where humor can be embedded in your content. How might irony, contrast, surprise, and reversals be inserted as a way to keep things interesting and lively? Keep in mind that warmth and humor manifest style and radiate presence, and these will only increase your ability to connect.
Chapter 4: Standing Tall
✵ Beach Walk—experience how environment affects movement
✵ Office Walk—experience how your style of movement adjusts to the environment
✵ Seated Pelvic Tilt—properly align hips
✵ Belly Dance—hip rotation
✵ Open Hips—increase range of motion, mobility
✵ Take a Thought for a Dance—movement impacts feeling
✵ Feeling Feet—experience how feet express
✵ Centering—ground oneself
✵ Launch—feel how centering impacts movement
✵ Long Step/Short Step—play with your walk
✵ Sitting Tall—having presence when seated
✵ Walk Copy—embody another’s walking style
✵ Ministry of Silly Walks— play, discover how extreme movement changes your state of mind