How to Project Strength and Confidence Without Saying a Word
A regrettable recent experience made me realize how important non-verbal communication is – perhaps, more important than anything we say with words. I was volunteering backstage at a local children's theater production in which my son was performing – moving sets and props on and off the stage. The assistant director – stressed as if this were opening night of a multi-million dollar Broadway production – grabbed me aggressively from behind at the shoulders and dragged me to the exact spot where she wanted me to stand. Too shocked and humiliated to handle the situation at the moment like I should have, I said nothing – no verbal or non-verbal communication whatsoever – to let her know her behavior was wholly unacceptable. I was a doormat.
As I pondered the episode in the days to come, I asked myself some hard questions: Why did she do that to me and not the other volunteers? What could I have done to prevent that from happening and, most importantly, how could I stop that from ever occurring again? I realized it all came down to non-verbal communication. Without saying a word, I had let her know she could walk all over me.
Get More Respect at Work by Using Non-Verbal Communication
But remaining a doormat was not an option for me. After all, doormats wear out over time – fraying at the edges and becoming unsightly – as people step on them over and over. Eventually they get discarded. I didn't want this to happen to me...but, I knew it already was.
I had become a doormat in many areas of my life since my son got diagnosed with autism. The incident backstage was simply the most recent and egregious. So I started to diet, exercise, dress better, stand taller, and work on how I presented myself to the world. I'm short (5'1”) and middle-aged so I was an easy target in those two areas I couldn't change. So I began to look at areas that I could alter and I landed on my non-verbal communication skills. By focusing on those, I immediately saw a difference as people began to treat me with more respect.
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.
— Peter F. Drucker
Get More Respect by Using Non-Verbal Communication
Like so many of us, I overlooked non-verbal communication skills as a way to assert myself in the world. However, I soon discovered they're an important tool in our arsenal, allowing us to say so much without uttering a word. According to research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrhabian, author of Silent Messages, communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. The non-verbal part consists of 55% body language (facial expressions, gestures, posture) and 38% tone of voice.
In many instances – as was the case when I was backstage at the performance – talking is not an option. I needed to convey that I was a strong person worthy of respect without saying a word. Given the outcome, I did a lousy job of that. But since that episode, I learned how to show confidence in the following three significant ways: eye contact, hand gestures, and body language.
The Eyes Have It: Communicating Confidence With Just a Glance
As the mother of a child with autism, I spent a lot of time reminding my son to make eye contact. Therefore, it's ironic that I was not using that skill myself to its full advantage. As I gained weight, grew older, and lost confidence, I unconsciously wanted to become less visible – to hide from view – and not get judged by others. Yet, that was a serious mistake because people think negatively of those who don't sustain eye contact. This is what the research shows:
- When you sustain eye contact, others see you as someone who feels good about herself – secure and confident.
- When you sustain eye contact, others perceive you as having positive qualities. They think of you as warm and sociable. They see you as being more reliable, honest, confident, and active.
- When you don't sustain eye contact, people are more apt to attach negative qualities to you. They're more likely to see you as deceitful and annoying. They're less likely to connect with you.
As I began to sustain eye contact with people, I saw instant results. People in stores gave me better service. My teenagers listened to me, and all my interactions – with family, friends, and strangers – were friendlier and more gratifying. Knowing I'd be making eye contact, I gave my appearance more attention – wearing makeup, styling my hair, putting on earrings and necklaces. Now I was projecting more strength and confidence with my appearance as well as my eye contact, and people were responding favorably.
Hand Gestures: Adding Credibility and Passion to Your Words
While picking up my son from middle school, I sat in the car and watched two women conversing on the sidewalk. Although I couldn't hear a word they were saying, I became captivated by their interaction. Their animated hand gestures made everything about their conversation seem dramatic, exciting, and alive. I wanted to become a part of it. It got me thinking about how seldom I use hand gestures and wondering whether they're an effective way to convey strength and confidence. This is what I discovered from my research:
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- People tend to view those who use a variety of hand gestures in a positive way. They see them as warm, agreeable, and energetic.
- People tend to view those who show no hand gestures as cold and indifferent.
- People tend to trust those who align their hand gestures to what they are saying.
- People do not view all hand gestures the same. They perceive a speaker as honest if her hands are open and her palms are up at a 45-degree angle. They see a speaker as nervous and unsettled if she grasps her hands in front of her body.
- Studies show that hand gestures should stay controlled and close to the body – from the top of the chest to the bottom of the waist. People perceive anything beyond this range as distracting and out of control.
The single biggest problem with communication...is the illusion that it has been accomplished.
— George Bernard Shaw
Body Language: Appearing Powerful and Competent
Since I had spoken little with the assistant director before she manhandled me, I concluded that my body language had failed to communicate power and competence. She sized me up as an easy target from the way I carried myself. Since I'm short and middle-aged, I needed to think about ways to appear mightier. This is what I learned from my research:
- Get off to a good start by extending your arm and giving a firm handshake. Patting the person's shoulder with your other hand while doing this gives you even more control.
- Pay attention to your posture. To project assertiveness, stand with your body upright and both feet firmly planted and spaced comfortably apart.
- When someone behaves in an aggressive way towards you, handle the situation steadily and immediately without escalating the situation. When you don't handle the problem instantly, you're seen as passive and the person may intensify.
Thinking about this made me remember that the assistant director had pulled on the back of my shirt the day before she manhandled me, and I had done nothing. My inaction gave her a green light to escalate. By not turning around, looking at her directly in the face, and saying “don't do that,” I opened the door for the assault. Dr. Phil says, “We teach people how to treat us” and I obviously taught her to treat me poorly.
Although the assault shocked and humiliated me, I'm glad it happened. It was the wake up call I needed to take a hard look at how I was presenting myself to the world. I did look downwards too much. I did fail to make the first move when introducing myself -- extending an arm and giving a firm handshake. I rarely made hand gestures, and I tended to slouch.
By becoming aware of eye contact, hand gestures, and body language, I immediately saw results as people showed more respect and kindness to me. I turned it into a game to see how my actions could shape their responses. This made social interactions more fun, and I started enjoying people a lot more. I'll never let anyone manhandle me again – no way, no how, not happening!
If You Want to Appear More Confident and Powerful Without Saying a Word, This Is the Book for You!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 13, 2016:
Thanks, Bill. It feels good to turn a negative experience into something empowering. Thanks for reading!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 13, 2016:
Excellent information, made better by adding your personal experiences...thank you for sharing.