We all know that our body language influences the way people perceive us. They decide in a glance whether we’re confident or not, happy or sad, comfortable in our own skin or self-conscious.

People even draw conclusions about our intelligence or business acumen or how nice we are from the way we carry ourselves. They make up their minds in an instant. Interestingly, the research shows those first impressions are very often borne out by experience.

And there’s even more to it than that, as I learned studying NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).

The way we carry ourselves doesn’t just influence the conclusions people draw about us. It also shapes the way we perceive them. Hence the name Perceptual Positions.

You can use your posture to affect the way you take in information from your surroundings. To see things from another point of view. And to achieve your goals.

Here’s how Perceptual Positions work …

Self (First) Position

In Self Position, a person is grounded and centered. Feet firmly on the floor, body erect, head straight up and down on the shoulders. Boundaries are clear.

When I’m in Self Position, I see, hear and feel from my own perspective. I’m authentic and grounded, in touch with my own beliefs and values. I know what I want, I can be assertive and clear about my limits.

Of course, Self Position has its limitations. It makes it easy to be egotistical and selfish.

It’s best for pursuing my own interests, taking care of myself and standing my ground.

So if you’re on the phone arguing with the cable company, plant your feet, sit up straight and keep your head straight as you explain how they got it wrong. Don’t lean in or bend over the way people often do when they’re on the phone (as if the phone still had a cord on it). You want to stay in your own clearly defined space – don’t enter theirs.

Other (Second) Position

In Other Position, I might be leaning toward you or maybe to one side. My head might be tilted. My body seems softer, less rigid.

In Other Position I can see, hear and feel from your perspective. I can be empathetic and understanding. I’m in touch with your beliefs and values; I sense what you want. And I can even begin to predict what you’ll do.

Limitation: In Other Position, I could be servile and acquiescent, a doormat.

You can use it for understanding another person, creating rapport, realizing the impact my actions have on someone else.

When your best friend needs to talk, you can listen better and empathize more in Other Position. Lean in, soften your body and tilt your head. It will give you a much better chance of really understanding her situation.

Observer (Third) Position

In Observer Position, I’m leaning back away from the action. My arms might be folded across my chest; you can sense that I’m pulling away.

Someone in Observer Position can see, hear and feel from an outsider’s perspective. They can be neutral and detached; separate from somebody else’s stress or intensity. Observer Position is good for getting in touch with data and patterns. A person can step back – be analytical and logical.

The downside? In Observer Position I could be cold and calculating.

It’s best for taking stock of the situation, shifting gears, discovering a new alternative or relieving strong emotion.

Let’s say a colleague is venting and the issue has nothing to do with you. You don’t want to get mixed up in it; you know nothing good can come of this diatribe. Lean back – away from the fray. You might fold your arms in front of you for good measure. You’re sort of blocking the negative energy so you can assess and do what’s right for you without taking on their stuff.

Your Turn

If you start paying attention, you’ll notice that people (including you!) move in and out of these Perceptual Positions all day long, mostly without conscious awareness.

It’s fascinating to experiment with deliberate shifts. You can use your posture more strategically as you interact with the people around you.

We tend to have a default position that feels like home. You probably won’t be surprised that mine is Self Position. There could be a gender thing at work here. In my first NLP class, the people who felt most natural or comfortable in Other Position were overwhelmingly women. And the people who defaulted to Observer were mostly men.

It was fascinating to try out someone else’s postures and movements; we experimented with “walking in their shoes.”

I’d love to hear which Perceptual Position feels like home to you. And what happens when you start using these positions intentionally. Post a comment and share your observations.