When the curtain eventually falls on Gruenfeld's class, I am inspired but unsettled. As much fun as it was to unleash my haughty side, I certainly wouldn't want to cultivate such an unlikable persona. So I ask Gruenfeld if she thinks it's possible to be powerful without being a jerk.
"What we do in class is push you to your extremes," she explains. Her goal is to help people experiment with a range of behavioral styles, from the most dominant to the most deferential. (Just as important as learning how to play high is recognizing when to play low, by tempering displays of authority with self-deprecation and humor.) Once my body has mastered the full range of nonverbal language, she says, I will automatically approach situations with a flexible mix of confidence and humility.
Of course, gaining that fluency will take practice. In the meantime, rather than trying to adhere to a long mental checklist of powerful poses, Gruenfeld recommends picking one or two nonverbal techniques to focus on. For example, keeping your elbows on the arms of your chair (rather than against your sides); making direct and sustained eye contact; or using a lower, more authoritative voice. If you can do one or two of those things consistently, she says, "the rest of your psychology will catch up."
The first opportunity to try my newfound skills comes at my daughter's softball game the next week. My target is her coach; in an instructional league for 9-year-olds, his overriding goal is to win, no matter the cost. Game after game, I've watched my daughter languish in the outfield while the same cast of players (including the coach's child) spends almost every inning in the infield. Two weeks earlier, my husband sent a temperate e-mail to the coach questioning this imbalance but received no reply. Now, watching my daughter attempt to stay alert in left field, I decide that I need to confront the coach, no matter how uncomfortable doing so makes me feel.
First I retreat to a porta-potty. Hopping up and down (and wondering what it would take to tip this sucker over), I shake my arms and exhale my "ha-ha-has." A few minutes later, the pit in my stomach has disappeared and both my body and mind are more relaxed. Striding back toward the diamond to watch the last inning, I try to walk with an assertive posture, keeping my head level, my eyes straight ahead.
When the game ends, I approach the coach, positioning myself on a gentle rise behind the backstop so we're the same height, and ask for a few minutes of his time. Following Gruenfeld's advice, I decide to focus on two things: maintaining eye contact and keeping my hands on my hips, elbows out. Although I can feel my pulse in my neck, I'm pretty certain I look self-assured.
I make the points I've rehearsed, my words rolling out in my best Diane Sawyer basso. When the coach tries to dispute the facts, I interrupt: "Coach, I'm not here to argue with you; just look at the team's stats. I'm asking you to consider how you can remedy this situation."
In the end, he offers a stumbling, possibly halfway sincere apology and promises to rethink his lineup. When he starts fidgeting with the cap of his Gatorade bottle, I know I've won. I thank him for his time and turn away, thinking, "My God, this stuff actually works." World, here I come.
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