Now here’s the sad news. You can say the right things and use the right words, but if your body language conflicts with your spoken language, you might as well not have opened your mouth.
If you want your message to sound authentic, every aspect of your delivery has to be congruent.
Here’s the good news. You can learn to manage your non-verbal signals so they convey confidence and authority. In fact, if you adopt convincing assertive body language, to some extent the job is done before you speak.
How to stand
Develop the kind of posture which indicates that you are confident and comfortable with yourself.
You are aiming for a balance between looking as if your one purpose in life is not to be noticed, and pushing yourself into other people’s physical and psychological space.
Keep your body straight
Hold your head high, in line with your spine. (See that little rhyme there? You could use that as a reminder. You’re welcome.)
Relax your shoulders. Be careful not to hunch them.
Keep your weight evenly balanced on both feet.
If you stand too close to someone, they may feel threatened and uncomfortable. Some people do this as a deliberate display of power — this is not assertive behaviour, but is, in fact, a sign of weakness.
As a rough guide, a distance of between 1.2-2.6 metres is good for most work situations.
Of course, as with all aspects of body language and communication, different cultures observe different norms.
How to walk around
Focused and purposeful are the key words here.
Walk at an even pace with medium strides. If you take tiny, tiny steps you will come across as a scurrying mouse, and barging ahead as if you are about to invade a small republic not only looks aggressive, but suggests you are stressed and out of control.
Be aware of others. Move out of the way where appropriate, and thank people with a word, a smile or a nod for moving out of your way.
How to sit
Who would have thought that the way you handle an ordinary chair could say so much about you? But there is an ‘assertive’ way of sitting.
Position yourself centrally in the chair with the base of your spine against its back.
Sit up straight.
If there are armrests, use them.
Feel yourself filling the space you occupy.
If you are small, imagine a large bubble around you filling with air.
If you have a large physique, and think you might seem intimidating, don’t slouch.
Keep your mental space enclosed.
Keep your arms close together and make the palms of your hands turn towards each other.
Don’t perch on the edge of your seat.
Don’t wind your legs around the legs of the chair.
Keep your arms away from the front of your body. Don’t fold them. Folding your arms might make you feel comfortable, or you might want to hide the coffee stain on your new sweater or you might be feeling a bit cold. But everyone will think ‘Folded arms? Hah! Defensive or what?’
Don’t turn the chair round and straddle it. You will look like a bit of a chump.
Don’t lean back with your legs spread out in front of you and your hands behind your head. You’re not at home watching the big match. This posture is a bit of a guy thing, but for guys and gals alike, it’s best to avoid it.
What to do with your hands
Flappy hand movements, pointing fingers, table banging or tapping are distracting, as is fiddling with your hair, jewellery, rings, phone, pen and so on.
Well-chosen, controlled hand movements add authority to your words.
If you want to indicate a sense of being calm and in control, try putting your hands together in front of you, palms down, then slowly move them apart to your sides, as if you are smoothing out a piece of cloth. Doesn’t that feel reassuring?
If you want to emphasise firmness and determination, put your hands out in front of you, palms facing each other, a little way apart. As you speak, keep your hands in that position, and bring them down sharply. Keep them parallel.
It is sometimes thought that women don’t do firm gestures, and let their hands go floppy, which undermines their message. Just saying.