Our first impression of a person is generally based on their facial expression and body language. We use these forms of nonverbal communication, or “nonverbals,” as a source of information about the person, their mood, motivation and personality. Even when we have information that contradicts the nonverbals, we may give more weight to these behaviors and facial expressions.

For example, when a colleague says she “loves” the gift we gave her, yet her face does not show that she likes the gift, we may conclude that she really doesn’t like the gift. We see nonverbals as an important window, often one that is more valid than verbal communications, into the mind and emotions of others. Understanding more about nonverbals, how they impact our perceptions and how our own nonverbals can change the way we think and act is an important step in harnessing these behaviors to our advantage.

The strong power of nonverbals to shape our impression of people can be seen in how certain behaviors and facial expressions correlate with how much a person is liked.

Researchers at Princeton University found that evaluations of political candidates’ faces and expressions made within one second predict 70 percent of the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial race winners. That is, even with a quick glance we infer a great deal from these nonverbals. These quick evaluations of nonverbals are correlated with how much we like, trust and see someone as competent.

For example, researchers at Tufts University presented subjects with a 30-second clip of doctor and patient interactions and asked the subjects to rate the niceness of the physician. The subjects’ ratings actually predict which doctors will be sued. It appears that it is the physician’s nonverbals that influence our belief about their competence, regardless of their actual skills.

Generally, nonverbal behaviors that include making eye contact, smiling, presenting with an open posture and standing up straight are considered to be associated with positive attributes such as being friendly, smart and kind. In contrast, failing to make eye contact, not smiling, sitting in a closed position and not standing erect are considered to be negative nonverbals and are associated with a host of unkind attributes. While we may fail to be conscious of how we connect the nonverbal cues to these negative and positive assumptions, we tend to do this on an ongoing and often unconscious basis.

There is also mounting evidence that our own nonverbal behavior can influence how we think and feel. That is, smiling can make us feel happier, making eye contact can make us feel more connected and adopting a certain stance can make us more aggressive. Specifically, even if we don’t normally engage in certain nonverbal behavior, doing so, even for a brief period of time, can impact our feelings of anxiety, aggression and competence.

Amy Cuddy and colleagues at Harvard University studied the effect of nonverbals on our behavior, specifically on risk taking, and testosterone and cortical levels. She had subjects engage in one of five high-powered (body open, erect posture, face up) or low-powered positions (body closed, face down) for two minutes. After this time, subjects played certain games, gave saliva samples and were asked questions. The results revealed that subjects who had engaged in the high-power positions had significantly higher level of risk tolerance and testosterone levels and lower levels of cortisol.

A follow-up study by Cuddy and colleagues looked at the impact of low- and high-power poses prior to a stressful job interview. While analysis of the tapes of the low- and high-power pose groups revealed no significant difference on measures of job qualifications and speech structure, the high dominance posers were selected for the job at much higher rates. It appears that taking on a nonverbal pose of dominance conveys some advantage (decrease in cortisol, increase in testosterone, increase in risk taking behavior) that leads to a more competent performance overall.

Armed with the knowledge that nonverbals both influence what others think of you, and that your nonverbals can impact your own feelings and competence, you can use nonverbals to your advantage. Harness the power of your behavior to potentially decrease your cortisol and increase your risk taking behavior. Below are some suggestions to consider.

» 1. Realize that nonverbals are a tool you use to evaluate others and likewise is a window others use to assess you.

» 2. Evaluate what nonverbals you engage in on a regular basis by checking in with your body language periodically throughout the day.

» 3. If you find that you engage in nonverbal behaviors that are associated with lower levels of competence, trust and liking, consider trying to incorporate some new ones. Challenge yourself to make more eye contact, smile, stand more erect and adopt an open body posture on an ongoing basis.

» 4. Before entering situations that may be stressful, take time to focus on your nonverbals and ensure you adopt those that will enhance your performance. For example, before giving a speech do not sit down in a closed posture reading your notes, consider walking around with an open stance, rehearsing the speech while making eye contact with others.

» 5. Remember that nonverbal behavior is habitual. It takes time to change and incorporate new nonverbals.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at drwinifredlender@gmail.com. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.