What is your standard response to stress and how does it affect your communication and your relationships?
When under pressure or exposed to conflict, we tend to cope along three dimensions: by moving move toward people (compliance), against them (aggression), or away from them (withdrawal). These are instinctive behaviours – human versions of the basic defense strategies in the animal kingdom: submission, fight, and flight.
Variables like your relative physical size and social status will certainly play a role in each situation, but often we will default to patterns developed in our childhood. If pleasing others helped to keep you safe and loved as a child, you are more likely to move towards people when the heat is on. If your sense of safety depended on protecting your self-worth verbally and physically, you may have nurtured a pattern of moving against others. While all three patterns are available to all of us, we become more used to and comfortable with one of them, and the other two become less accessible.
Your body language reveals your coping strategy
Each coping strategy will influence your emotional reactions and the way you process and filter information. It will also be manifested by your body language:
The pattern of moving against people sends the signal of “I’m bigger than the world”, making the individual seem self-confident to the point of being arrogant. The body language will be expansive with a wide stance and an open, sometimes pushed, chest. The upper body may be leaning forward, often accompanied by a protruding chin. The eye contact is intense, gazing firmly at perceived opponents.
Somebody who manages their anxiety by maintaining their distance and pushing other people away may still come across as confident. Nevertheless, the underlying concept of the moving away strategy is “I’m smaller than the world”. Under pressure, the individual may lean away from others, take a step back, or simply leave the room. Arms crossed in front of the chest and reluctance to make eye contact tells other people to stay away. Checking out from a conversation by turning your attention to your phone or computer is another signal.
When moving toward people, we deal with our sense of inadequacy by building alliances with others. The underlying belief is that “I need to adapt to the world”, making the person eager to comply with requests and to be liked. The body language is submissive and void of any component that could signal a threat or competition. The body posture will be that of making yourself smaller, with feet close together and collapsed chest. The head is slightly tilted and the eye-brows raised, with frequent nodding and smiling.
Overdoing any strategy will sabotage your communication
All three coping strategies have healthy and useful aspects. Moving against others helps you establish personal boundaries and shows your ability to stand your ground. But if done too aggressively, it will seem threatening, controlling or manipulative. Other people may feel undervalued or abused and agree with you out of intimidation rather than by being convinced and motivated. In the same way, moving away has the healthy benefit of giving yourself time and space to reflect and resource yourself, with the risk of coming across as detached, disengaged and resigned. Finally, the upside of moving toward others is that it favors collaboration and harmony in the workplace, and the downside that you are seen as dependent and self-effacing and may be exploited by others.
You don’t have to be a victim of your gut reaction
In stressful situations, the body always wins. To avoid getting caught up in your default reactive pattern, you can practice how to center when under pressure. By simply changing your physical posture, you prepare your mental and physiological systems to better handle challenging situations.
Wendy Palmer, author and practitioner of Leadership Embodiment, offers a 20-second centering practice:
- Focus on Breath. Inhale up alongside your back and out of the top of your head, lengthening your spine as you straighten and uplift your posture. Slowly take twice as long to exhale down your front all the way into the floor, softening your jaws and shoulders as you go. Repeat 2-3 times.
- Appreciate the space around you and expand your personal space out to fill the room.
- Evoke a quality. Your quality represents something you want to cultivate in yourself. Ask “if there were a little more __ (ease, confidence, compassion, etc) in my body, what would that be like?”
To be able to access a centered state when under duress, practice this exercise until it become second nature.