Tag: cortisol

9/23/12 “The importance of body language”

Good day, team.

I recently read an article about the importance of body language and what it communicates about us. I’ve long known that our body language often communicates far more than our tone of voice or the actual words we speak. For example, I sat in a meeting last week where one of the participants was rolling her eyes while her fellow teammate continued to dominate the conversation. Her frustration with her teammate was obvious, even though she never said a word. In another conversation with a client, I noticed when I asked him a question that made him uncomfortable, he crossed his arms and looked down at the floor, rather than exchange eye contact with me. In another example, I saw two women sitting next to each other on the metro, chatting. When a suspicious-looking man sat next to them, they moved quickly and fearfully out of their seats.

All of these examples show how we communicate messages with our movements, facial expressions and gestures. Even though we may be saying something completely different with our words, our body language gives others the real message time after time. In fact, studies show that people who say something that doesn’t match their body language engender distrust in others. The listener receives two distinctly different messages and wonders which one is true and why the speaker is communicating two different things.

Now science has proven that our body language not just influences our state of mind, but actually changes our body chemistry. In an article from the Portland Business Journal this past week, Connie Glaser writes about this topic under the title, “Body language can be more powerful than you imagine”. In her article, she refers to Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy who wrote an article entitled “Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb,” published three years ago in the Harvard Business Review. Cuddy analyzed the impact that body language has on power. “ In the past, most psychologists assumed that body language actually reflected one’s state of mind. The controversial article made the argument that body language actually affected not only one’s state of mind, but it could alter physiological measurements as well”, wrote Glaser. “In her research on “power posing,” Cuddy showed that changing the body’s position for as little as two minutes has the ability to stimulate higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol. This finding is important because testosterone is linked with dominance and risk-taking, while cortisol is a stress hormone that can trigger hypertension, impair the immune system and cause memory loss.” Glaser continued.

Science has now proven that Cuddy’s hypothesis was correct. Cuddy joined Dana Carney and Andy Yap from the Columbia Graduate School of Business to study these phenomena. In an article, they published in Psychological Science, they wrote about an experiment they conducted to prove their theory. A control group was used to measure the hormonal impact of body language. Male and female participants were evenly placed in either high or low power pose groups. The high power pose group was placed in expansive postures (i.e., leaning forward with both hands placed firmly on the desk) while the low power pose group was put in restrictive poses (i.e., sitting in a chair with arms folded and legs tightly crossed). Amazingly, after two minutes, the high power poses decreased their cortisone levels by 25 percent and increased their testosterone levels by 19 percent. What this shows is that physical poses alone effect the brain as well as the body. Consequently, people who feel powerless or have low self-esteem can overcome these feelings by changing their body pose.

Cuddy also went on to study the importance of “emotional impressions” that we receive from other people. “She discovered that most people underestimate the powerful connection of warmth and mistakenly overestimate the importance of competence”, wrote Glaser. People tend to spend way too much time worrying about the words they use, rather than how they communicate the message. Cuddy observed, “People often are more influenced by how they feel about you than by what you’re saying … you have to connect with them before you can lead them.”

In my own observations, I notice that when I’m feeling unsure of myself, my feet tend to turn in and my posture collapses in toward my chest. My breath gets shorter, and I actually feel smaller, physically. I’m sure the message that’s sent to others is that I’m not confident. On the other hand, when I’m feeling good and confident, I easily sit up straight, look directly into the eyes of whomever I’m talking with and feel much more present. Both of these positions have a huge impact on the quality of my communication and my ability to influence any conversation.

This week, first observe your body language. What are your gestures saying to others? Can you feel your facial expressions when you’re sitting in a meeting? Are you saying one thing and allowing your body language to say the opposite? Are you projecting warmth and a desire to connect or a cold indifference by only focusing on the facts or results?

Second, try experimenting with your gestures and movements. Are they confident or lacking in self-assurance? Does your body language make others uncomfortable? What are your facial expressions saying to others? Do you often look worried or skeptical when you’re listening to others? Do you cross your arms when you’re in meetings with others? Maybe you’re sending out mixed messages to others by saying one thing with your words and sending a different message in your body language.

As much as I don’t like video conferencing, I have found that seeing myself on the screen the way others see me is helpful. I remember how surprised I was to see myself on a videoconference screen looking completely bored with the meeting I was attending. I didn’t feel bored, but I was slouched in my seat and not being very attentive to what others were saying. When I caught a glance of myself on the screen, I was shocked at what I saw. I immediately sat up straight and tried to become more engaged. When I did this, I noticed that others around me responded more positively toward me.

The way we communicate sends out multiple messages to others. If our body language matches our words spoken, our communication is far more powerful. This week, try experimenting with it and see what you discover.

Have a good week!


Note: The coach will be taking a much-needed break for the next three weeks. The next challenge will be published Oct. 28, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.


Good day, team,

Here’s a challenge I wrote last year that seems appropriate to republish. Since many of the conditions that inspired it are still with us, I thought you’d appreciate seeing it again.

Lately, many of my clients are going through a particularly stressful time so I thought it would be useful to understand more about what’s actually happening to us when we become too stressed.

Here is an excerpt about the chemistry of stress from “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatizis; it appears in the September 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review. (The entire article is well worth reading.)

“When people are under stress, surges in stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol strongly affect their reasoning and cognition. At low levels, cortisol facilitates thinking and other mental functions, so well-timed pressure to perform and targeted critiques of subordinates certainly have their place. When a leader’s demands become too great for a subordinate to handle, however, soaring cortisol levels and an added hard kick of adrenaline can paralyze the mind’s critical abilities. Attention fixates on the threat from the boss rather than the work at hand; memory, planning and creativity go out the window. People fall back on old habits, no matter how unsuitable those are for addressing new challenges.

“Poorly delivered criticism and displays of anger by leaders are common triggers of hormonal surges. In fact, when laboratory scientists want to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they simulate a job interview in which an applicant receives intense face-to-face criticism—an analogue of a boss tearing apart a subordinate’s performance.

“Researchers likewise find that when someone who is very important to a person expresses contempt or disgust toward him, his stress circuitry triggers an explosion of stress hormones and a spike in heart rate by 30 to 40 beats person minutes. Then, because of the interpersonal dynamic of mirror neurons and oscillators, the tension spreads to other people. Before you know it, the destructive emotions have infected an entire group and inhibited its performance. Leaders are themselves not immune to the contagion of stress. All the more reason they should take time to understand the biology of emotions.”

Your challenge this week is to check your stress levels and try to regain balance for your heart, mind and body. Perhaps you’ve noticed a tendency to disengage when you’re at work. If that’s the case, try finding one particular thing you really love doing and focus on that for awhile. Passion naturally re-engages us, and lends us a new source of energy. Maybe you find yourself becoming negative toward your co-workers; try getting some exercise at lunchtime to counter those feelings. If you find that your behavior is having a negative impact on others, try asking for help. Talk to someone you trust on the team. Let them know you’re having a hard time and could use help seeing things in a more positive light. Experiment with meditation techniques. Recent studies have proven that daily meditation reduces high blood pressure, high levels of cortisol, migraine headaches, and a number of other high-stress symptoms.

Whatever your experience of stress, remember that it’s not just your brain that does the work: A healthy body and an open heart are necessary to face each day as it comes, with all of its successes and failures. If you’re running at a deficit, figure out what you need to do to turn that loss into a gain. And chill out from time to time throughout the day. It might just help you think more clearly and creatively while it supports your body’s ability to be stress free.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

© Copyright 2009 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search, Inc., all rights reserved.