Straighten your back. Now unclench your jaw. Okay, now release the tension from your shoulders. Much better. Did these tips totally call you out? If so, you’re not alone: we all habitually assume certain postures, often without even realizing what we’re doing. But the way we sit, stand, and move can influence other people’s opinions about us before we’ve said one word to them. That’s why it’s key to understand what you’re doing and use it to your advantage.
Understanding cues and assumptions
As many of us return to in-person interactions after a long period of phone calls and seated video meetings, our real-world skills may feel a little rusty. But one interpretive skill will likely remain fairly strong: our ability to read the body language of others.
“As humans, we are highly visual interpreters,” says Karen Donaldson, a body language expert who has authored two handbooks on improving self-confidence through body language. “Many gestures can be easily read because they are based on innate and learned human behavior… we readily and easily take messages from others’ body language before we listen to what they say.”
Confident body language, therefore, can be just as important as confident speech. In some cases, it can even override what we say: true facts delivered by a meek and antsy speaker can come off as less credible than blatant lies delivered with perfect self-assurance. Luckily, you only need to focus on a few specific action areas to fine-tune your body language for success.
Posture is everything
Simply standing still can offer those around you a world of information about your authority and confidence. Whether you’re hanging out at a party or speaking in front of a crowd, you can keep your audience engaged by maintaining what Donaldson calls an “open” posture.
“Open your chest when standing, feet slightly beyond hip-width apart, head up, chin parallel to the ground to create an open, welcoming, and powerful appearance,” she says. “Take up more physical space when sitting or standing—it implies that a person is confident.”
This especially applies to women and members of other marginalized groups, many of whom may habitually avoid this assertive body language. Donaldson recommends that these individuals practice standing with their feet farther apart than they’re used to, making it more difficult for others to encroach on their physical space.
Measure your movements
The key to confident movement is the intention behind it. Anxiety and discomfort can manifest in our body language as fidgeting, pacing, or repetitive movements like bouncing a knee or tapping a foot. Try to resist the urge to fall into these behaviors when you end up in a stressful environment. Instead, make every movement deliberate.
“Walk with intention: your walk should look purposeful, controlled, calm, and unhurried,” says Donaldson. “Take medium, shoulder length steps. Not too short, or you’ll look nervous and in a haste, and too big a step makes you look awkward.” She adds that your movements are key to the first impression you make when you enter a room.
“Walk into rooms with intention and don’t quietly inch in,” she says. “Intentional and more assertive movements allow you to appear reassured of yourself.”
Facial expressions are key
Most of us already know that smiles mean happiness, while frowning signals displeasure. But more subtle facial cues can inform the way others perceive our competence in addition to our moods. One major way to convey confidence with your facial expressions is through eye contact: try to maintain it throughout conversations to show your comfort interacting with others.
“Ensure that you aren’t the first one to stray away from making eye contact—that’s a submissive gesture,” says Donaldson. And while positive expressions like a smile or a nod are helpful in moderation, it’s important to avoid overdoing these elements.
[Related: How to smile without looking like a creep]
“This is one for the ladies or those who identify as a woman: stay away from excessive head nodding,” says Donaldson. “This usually happens during a conversation when a woman wants to show agreement, or demonstrate a ‘united front’ attitude. We continually head-nod as the other person is speaking. This is actually a sign of submissiveness, a sign of passivity, a sign of weakness.”
Instead, she suggests, keep yourself in check by nodding only when you mean it. Putting positive intention behind this common gesture will make it more impactful, and help you appear more confident as well.
Some perceptions are harder to fight
As helpful as the proper body language can be, adjusting your posture and movements can only do so much to prevent negative assumptions about your competence and authority. There are factors beyond your control, from your age and appearance to your sex, race, and gender presentation, that some people will always prioritize over your knowledge and personality.
“In any given situation where we are meeting people for the first time, a judgment about us is made within the first 10 seconds,” says Donaldson. “While we can work to shift the perception of who we are with our body language, we have no control over the thoughts and assumptions of others. I always say focus on how you show up, and spend less time considering the assumptions of other people that we can’t control.”
At the end of the day, it’s not your responsibility to prevent infuriating trends like mansplaining or skepticism of your competence. These body language tips are simply one tool in your arsenal to help you reclaim your confidence and boost your authority.