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I love my hands but they often deceive me.

In business meetings, my inner voice constantly warns me against using them improperly. If I'm not mindful, my fingers will touch my mouth, my hair, or worse, my hands will clasp together and stay there as if I'm pleading for my life – absolute no-nos.

Admittedly, I was a late convert to the value of body language. I used to dismiss the media's fascination with how a politician looked when delivering a speech, preferring to focus on the words. Yet, after years of observing others and watching myself on film, I now realize how crucial it is to master the non-verbal cues we send, since that can make the difference between winning or losing an opportunity – be it a deal or a job – without even uttering a word.

In fact, the way we respond to certain mannerisms may be programmed into our DNA. Mark Bowden, a Toronto-based expert in human behaviour and body language, explains that evolution has hard-wired these responses into our interpretation of behaviour.

"Our primitive brain makes judgments about other people instantly as to whether that person or environment is safe or dangerous," explained Mr. Bowden, who has counted Prime Minister Stephen Harper among his clients. Intrinsically, we judge people's behaviour all the time and automatically assess whether or not they pose a danger, a benefit, or whether we can afford to act indifferently. Take, for example, networking events. Mr. Bowden said there are people we never remember – even after speaking with them – and that's because of their body language.

To understand how to use it to your advantage, to be perceived as a "friend" or in the "benefit" category, you need to understand which signals are important to send to be subconsciously interpreted by others. For example, signs of nervousness or anxiety, such as standing in someone's peripheral vision or displaying erratic movements, give off predatory cues. Predators will also move very quickly into personal space. It's instinctive – not that far removed from how animals interact. In fact, Mr. Bowden says our primitive brains aren't wired that differently than those of dogs.

But before beating yourself up about your prehistoric behaviour, many strategies exist to manage our physical presence to not only impress others but also to change ourselves.

Amy Cuddy, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, studied the physical impact of "power posing."

In her study, Prof. Cuddy took 42 subjects (26 females and 16 males) and had them maintain a "high-power pose" – where they take up more physical space – or a "low-power pose" for two minutes. The study showed that high-power posing increased testosterone and lowered the stress hormone, cortisol. The lesson here is that even faking strong body language makes you more confident. Many appear to agree, since her TED talk on body language has been viewed over four million times.

Julie Ruben Rodney, chief executive officer of human resources firm MaxPeoplePerform, suggests that, even as the receiver, it's important to challenge the messages you are internalizing from another's body language. "Someone may be yawning because they were up the night before with a young child and not because they are disinterested in your presentation," Ms. Rodney cautioned. "I believe it is important to mention to someone you are interacting with the signals you are receiving from them, whether it is the tone of their voice or how they have positioned themselves."

She cites ULCA professor Albert Mehrabian's well-known 7-per-cent/38-per-cent/55-per-cent rule, which illustrates the relative impact of verbal and non-verbal cues. That means that words count for a mere 7 per cent of impact, tone for 38 per cent, and body language for 55 per cent. There's not a lot of wiggle room when we give a poor performance, no matter how strong the content of our messages.

Unfortunately, North American social conventions may unwittingly discourage girls from projecting authority through physical power, which hurts them as they enter the work force.

"Girls are socialized to fit in, while boys are socialized to stand out. This creates two different body language habits," said Judith Humphrey, president of the Humphrey Group, a leadership development firm.

"Girls are quieter, more self-contained, and in general use body language that does not call attention to themselves. Boys, on the other hand, are louder, more physically 'out there' and more likely to have gestures that are bigger, more dynamic, and even aggressive. In a corporate boardroom, who gets noticed?" she asked. (Hint – not women.)

Ms. Humphrey's firm created a program called "Taking the Stage," showing women key body language "tricks of the trade" – how to stand and sit taller, take up more space with their gestures and put more power in their voices in order to project leadership. It's much like assuming a character – and, to that end, her firm employs actors to demonstrate leadership qualities.

Ms. Humphrey has one more piece of advice for women. "Stop worrying what people will think of you, whether they like you or not, or whether they will listen to you. That gives them too much power. Take the power back yourself."

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics

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