Nathan Meikle, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research and teaching associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, led the research. His team found that study participants consistently choose to work with confident potential collaborators or advisors over cautious ones. That is to say, exuding confidence makes people want to work with you. This has been documented before: Research has shown that confidence increases our belief in someone’s competence.
What this new study reveals, however, is that confidence can backfire if it turns out to be overconfidence, or confidence lacking real basis. The revelation of someone’s overconfidence (when communicated verbally by the overconfident person) actually reversed study participants’ preferences to favor more cautious but realistic collaborators.
But interestingly, when confidence — even if it turned out to be overconfidence — was communicated through nonverbal cues rather than verbal ones, participants did not reverse their preferences towards a cautious collaborator. The confident collaborators won out, whether or not their confidence was founded.
The study authors suggest that this result stems from the plausible deniability of nonverbally expressed confidence. Nonverbal indicators of confidence, unlike verbal ones, don’t make exact (and thus potentially unfulfillable) promises. This makes them an ideal conduit for getting the benefits of displayed confidence while avoiding the pitfalls of displaying overconfidence.
These results have deeply practical implications. Expressing your confidence primarily nonverbally can make colleagues and collaborators of all kinds more likely to want to work with you, even when your confidence isn’t as rock-solid as it appears (or isn’t based on a rock-solid basis).
Meikle provided some helpful tips on the kinds of nonverbal tactics that he and his coauthors found were good indicators of confidence. While far from the only forms of nonverbal confidence, Meikle’s suggestions provide some excellent microsteps to take in the pursuit of exuding trustworthy, unshakeable confidence.
Adopt an expansive posture
Meikle explained this as postures like “hands behind head, legs/knees/feet spread apart, shoulders spread out” and similar poses. Showing that you are comfortable taking up space physically means projecting confidence before you so much as open your mouth.
Make eye contact
Another nonverbal confidence indicator suggested by Meikle and used to powerful effect in the study was eye contact. Older research has also found that eye contact can project sincerity, facilitate trust and even increase perception of intelligence. It’s a powerful step to take when you are looking to build positive professional relationships.
Give a firm handshake
A firm handshake is a perennial indicator of confidence, touted by your grandparents and Meikle alike. It’s simple, silent and effective.
Speak in a strong voice
An “assertive/loud/confident voice,” according to Meikle, is another powerful means of expressing confidence without actually hinging your confidence on (perhaps overblown) claims. Speaking audibly and clearly while avoiding mumbling or trailing conclusions to your sentences will help communicate to your interlocutors that you are the one for the job or project.
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