The world gets so much bigger when you stop trying to be small. I had this fabulous epiphany during my second week in the steel mill where I currently work. The first couple months of employment were a string of safety trainings and shop floor tours with a small group of fellow new hires, five of us in total. It being a steel mill, I was the only girl. While attending a rigorous engineering school I became relatively used to this ratio and it wasn’t any surprise when I reported for work. However, it did feel like a clean slate and a chance to do a few things differently.
In school I tended to float on the edges of conversation, afflicted by the lack of confidence which comes with a bad case of impostor syndrome. That feeling never totally went away and it still haunts me from time to time. But when I started my new job I decided that the rest of the world didn’t need to know that. Here are some tips I picked up when I chose to take up space.
- The Stance – The simple act of physically occupying more space can completely change the way others act around you. I noticed this right away and the difference was mind blowing. A good rule of thumb is to set your feet comfortably shoulder width apart in a relaxed stance. If you cross your ankles or stand with your feet touching, people tend to squeeze in around you until you’ve been shuffled to the back of the pack. In my case this was particularly problematic as most of the guys in my tour group were at least six feet tall. When I planted my feet just a little wider there was an almost instantaneous change. I believe the boundaries of one’s personal space are largely defined by their foot placement.
- The Posture – Much like widening your stance, standing up straighter and taller helps to assert your presence in a group by taking up more physical space. The purpose of this is not to dominate the conversation. You aren’t trying to take over. You’re simply showing everyone that you deserve your spot in the circle by acting like you do. Of course, don’t overdo it. This should be a relaxed but alert posture indicating that you are fully engaged in the conversation and that you belong there.
- The Arms – If you can’t decide what to do with your hands, rest them loosely into your pants pockets. While widening your stance and standing straighter both help you to occupy more space, crossing your arms does just the opposite. It often causes you to hunch your shoulders and appear small. Many people subconsciously hug themselves as a self soothing mechanism. While it might make you feel more comfortable, it has a drastically different effect on those around you and should be avoided whenever possible.
- The Eyes – It’s all about eye contact! As a general rule, roughly three seconds is an acceptable amount of time to hold someone’s gaze. It is long enough to make you appear interested and engaged without getting you into trouble for staring. This was one of the most difficult pieces for me to master. I constantly worry about what people are thinking, afraid that someone might get the wrong impression from one look. However, it’s far worse to never sufficiently lock eyes. You’ll come across as shifty and nervous. Trust me.
- The Voice – Take a deep breath and take your time. Give yourself a few seconds to collect your thoughts before diving into your sentence and don’t be in a hurry to get to the end of it. It’s not a race. No one is going to cut you off at the buzzer. If you don’t value the words you’re saying, how can you expect anyone else to? Speak like you deserve to be heard; slowly, loudly and clearly.