Illustration: Marcos Chin
"Sorry!" I called out to my teammates during our weekly soccer game, after making a solid pass to an opposing player. A few minutes later, I was sorry again, for taking a weak shot on goal. And I was sorry once more when I let a player from the other team sidestep me to score against us.
That's when it dawned on me that I am a pathological apologizer. The habit may be most obvious on the soccer field, but it doesn't end there. The other day, someone phoned my house by mistake, and when she said, "Oops, wrong number," I replied, "Oh, I'm sorry."
I come from Minnesota, where the state motto might as well be "I don't want to impose," but my issues go beyond that. I am deeply, painfully averse to inconveniencing others (even when it's not actually my fault), and that includes any sort of confrontation, no matter how mild. In the most inconsequential interactions, I find myself doing linguistic gymnastics to avoid the slightest possibility of offending, as when a Staples clerk mistyped my phone number while searching for my "rewards" account recently and I helpfully offered, "The number must have become entered incorrectly somehow." I wish I were kidding.
While consideration for others is obviously a positive personality trait, endless worry about tact and politeness is not only anxiety producing, it's disempowering. My needless apologies during soccer games are a demoralizing refrain, as though I'm constantly telling myself, "You stink." And every time I agree to leave my writing desk early because my neighbor suggests that her kids have an evening playdate with mine (mom code for "free childcare"), I'm putting her schedule and objectives ahead of my own. So when a friend tells me about an executive education class for women called "Acting with Power," I can't help seeing it as a sign.
A few weeks later, I'm sitting in a sunny conference room on the campus of Stanford University, surrounded by MBAs, VPs, and CFOs—all of us hoping to become more confident and assertive. Our guide is psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, PhD, an expert in the body language of power. (Today's lesson is an abbreviated version of her ten-week course, one of the most popular electives at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.) Standing at the front of the room in dressy jeans and a stylish velvet jacket, Gruenfeld looks authoritative yet approachable. And she wastes no time getting down to business, launching right into a lecture on, of all things, how to sit.
"Powerful people use furniture wrong—to great effect," she announces. "They sit sideways on chairs, drape their arms over the back, or use two chairs by placing an arm across the back of an adjacent chair. They put their feet on the desk. They sit on the desk. They turn the chair around backward and straddle it."
These relaxed postures, Gruenfeld says, all involve claiming space. But they do something more: Recent research suggests that a powerful posture—from the tilt of your head to the turn of your toes—sparks a biochemical reaction in the body that actually makes you more powerful.
In other words, Gruenfeld says, it's possible to fake it till you make it.
"Many of us, especially women, resign ourselves to the idea that if we don't feel powerful, we can't act that way," she explains. "But these new findings imply that you can reverse the equation: By changing how you use your body, you can change your psychology, and ultimately, the circumstances of your life."