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leaninWhen my kids were toddlers, I lived for playdates. The kids would play, and the moms would talk “shop”, which meant sharing potty training strategies and bemoaning the serious lack of sleep we were experiencing.

Today at lunch, I found myself in a different sort of “playdate”. It was the second meeting of our new Lean In circle  at work, inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and created to be a place where female co-workers can encourage, learn, and talk “shop”.

For this month’s meeting, we spent our time discussing “Power and Influence”, a video seminar posted on the Lean In website, which focused on the non-verbal differences between men and women and how it influences perception of power. It was a fascinating discussion.

Think about the last time you walked into a room for any sort of gathering…work-related, small group, dinner with friends…how did you sit down? Did you plop down, lean back, and make yourself as expansive and relaxed as possible? Or did you slink in, cross your legs, and sit on your hands?

These are just a few of the characteristics of “Playing High” or “Playing Low”, according to Deborah H. Gruenfeld, Professor of Leadership & Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She reinforces the truth that what you say has a very minimal effect; it’s all about your behavior, and she focuses on non-verbal ways that we exhibit either authority and approachability.

Want to show authority? Hold your head still, speak in complete sentences, lean back, slow down, and hold eye contact just a tad longer than normal.

Want to be approachable? Nod and smile often, make yourself small, keep your hands by your face when you talk, and lean forward towards the person.

This isn’t just a “workplace thing”. We show authority and approachability in our families, in our friendships, in our volunteer activities, and on the sidelines of our kid’s soccer games. I liked what she had to say about it being “situational”; that there is a time and a place for both, but the truth is…women don’t always feel comfortable showing authority. We yield for plenty of reasons – it doesn’t feel comfortable, we don’t want people to perceive us as over-assertive, or we feel it isn’t our place.

But just as often…there are times where we have legitimate position and power, and we shortchange our influence because we don’t use all of the non-verbal behaviors that are at our disposal. Simple things, like sustained eye contact, speaking confidently, and taking up space in a room, can make a difference. We all need those reminders to behave “consciously” instead of defaulting to our normal tendencies, right?

We all went our separate ways after lunch, with the promise to continue our journey together, and it left me with two thoughts that I wanted to share:

1. If you don’t have a group of women that you can connect with about whatever stage of life you are in, be intentional to find one. MOPS, Bible study, a Lean In circle, dessert every other month…find something.

2. Pay attention to your non-verbals the next few days. Do you default to playing high or low? What is the impact? Try something different the next time you need to assert your power…

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