17 April

BLOG #10 Animation

To engage others when you speak at meetings you need to be animated. One of the problems for many people is that feeling nervous or even overawed at high-stakes meetings, or in front of powerful people, inhibits their communication. As a result, you may find your voice dropping in volume and sometimes variety. Instead of looking around the room and addressing people, you focus on the table. And your all-round expressivity diminishes.

Instead it’s important to maintain your energy levels and commit yourself to your message. If you seem unconvinced by what you are saying, you cannot expect others to buy into it.

Eye Contact

Become conscious of making eye contact. Look round at people. Talk to them. Many people have a tendency to speak only to the person running the meeting or to a few friendly faces or those people they see as the most important. But you must include everyone with your eyes. It can be particularly difficult to remember to look at those sitting immediately to the side of you but they are just as important as those people opposite. You are seeking to convince others and you won’t succeed if you don’t connect with them on an individual basis.


Keep your voice energised. Sitting up and leaning in will help make sure air flows easily through your vocal cords but it may also need conscious effort to keep your volume up and sustain a good variety of pitch, tone and pace. Many people fear sounding silly so restrict their vocal expression but actually if you believe in what you are saying it’s highly unlikely. Use pauses to allow things to land. Don’t be afraid of silence as long as it’s clear you have not finished. (I’ll address the question of how to deal with interruptions in the next blog).


When you talk, use your hands. Or rather allow your hands to do what they do naturally which is gesture. Gesturing is an intrinsic part of communicating and is driven by the connection between thought, feelings and body. When you talk to your friends or your family in a relaxed state you will use your hands without thinking about it. When you speak on the phone, you probably gesture automatically even though the other person cannot see you.

The impulse to speak with your hands is always likely to be there, especially when you are engaged or animated, but many people squash this impulse when communicating in a formal business setting. Don't. I'm not suggesting you wave your hands around just for the sake of it. This will read as purposeless and will be distracting. But it's perfectly possible to turn up the energy dial slightly, consciously, and engage your hands.

Another word of warning here – if you set out to use your hands more at your next meeting, it may feel a little odd. Especially if you habitually keep your gestures minimal, you may suddenly find yourself very conscious about these things on the ends of your arms! People on presentation skills workshops often ask “what do I do with my hands?" And it can take some time before they are able to follow the advice to “forget about them". So rather than forcing your hands to behave unnaturally, what I'm suggesting is that you stop preventing them from communicating.


A good way to access animation is to focus on why what you are saying matters. What do you want people to do or think as a result of your intervention? Why is it important that they hear you? A strong purpose will help you commit to your message and this commitment will manifest itself in your body and your voice. And if it doesn’t really matter, then question why you are speaking. If it’s just to get your voice heard, others will probably sense this and your stock will actually fall as they start to see you as someone who takes up airtime unnecessarily. And this will not make you less, not more, influential.

But if you are clear about your purpose for speaking and why it’s important you are much more likely to communicate that. Remember: courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the decision that something else is more important than the fear.


20 Mar

BLOG #9 Examples From Real Meetings

The last few blogs have discussed a number of factors to do with physicality and positioning that influence your status at meetings so I thought it might be worth having a look at how some of these play out in practice.

Take another look at this picture of a meeting in progress that I included in Blog #2 about leaning in.

Now I should say that I know nothing about the context or the personnel attending this meeting, it’s simply a photo I found online. But it’s a good example of several things I’ve been describing.

Who is chairing?

I reckon it’s the woman in the black jacket with the reddish hair on the left. For a start she is sitting in one of the power positions (long table so the middle of the sides are arguably more powerful than the end positions). Notice that there are only five people on her side of the table, as opposed to seven on the other side, and she has plenty of space around her. She is leaning in with an authoritative air, hands and collateral on the table in front of her, and appears to be talking through the document that several others are also referring to.

The woman in the red jacket on the left side is also a power player. Notice that both she and the chairwoman (assuming I’m right) have empty chairs next to them. If they are aligned – and the positioning suggests to me that they are - they will be a powerful force in the meeting.

Of the two women sitting in the middle of the right side of the table, the one in the white cardigan is in a potentially powerful position but she looks a bit cramped. By leaning in, she looks to be holding higher status than the others around her. The woman to her right, with the scarf and the red glasses, has slightly removed herself by sitting back. While this could theoretically be high-status, I doubt very much that others would sit so close to a super-alpha.

The man at the far end, in the black jacket with the grey hair, is potentially also in a powerful position but because he is off-centre, and shares the end of the table with the woman in the turquoise-blue blouse, his power is diminished. And the woman with glasses, at the top left, has pretty much completely removed herself by sitting back and having her hands in her lap.

Meanwhile the woman in brown at the bottom right-hand corner is, rightly, working extra hard to stay part of the discussion, with her hands further in than, say, the man in the bottom left of the corner, who looks like a spectator. Consequently she will find it easier to get her voice heard than he will. But both of them are starting at a disadvantage, however, because they are seated in the corners. Interestingly both also have empty seats next to them. Had either of them simply moved their seat around to occupy the empty end of the table, they would have boosted their status and instantly rivalled that of the chairwoman. Possibly that is why they haven’t done so, they may intuitively know they lack the necessary status. The man in the bottom left corner, in particular, has the air of a spectator about him.

Another interesting feature is that there are two empty chairs at this end of the table and yet, at the other end, the attendees are bunched up. Whether there were simply more chairs around the table than people attending, or some people failed to show up, the man and woman at this end both made the poor choice of corner positions, when more influential chairs were available. But either could increase their status by getting rid of the empty chairs next to them and increasing their space.

No-table Meetings

At meetings without tables the influence of positioning and body language is even more pronounced. People are usually free to place their chairs where they choose. There may be a variety of seating, including armchairs and softer furniture, some of which become the power positions and the spatial arrangement may evolve around those that are fixed or less easily moved. Generally speaking the higher the seat, the greater the status. Beware the low sofa. It's very difficult to speak with authority when you are sunk deep into the upholstery!

Similarly you should take care not to sit outside a circle, or whatever variation of it emerges. This is far more common than you might imagine. It's extraordinary how often a group of people will sit in something resembling a circle, but with one or two people just outside.

For example both the woman in the bottom right hand corner of this picture and the woman in the floral shirt on the opposite side are sitting outside the circle. It may be subtle but by placing themselves just slightly back from the line of the circle, they distance themselves from the discussion and diminish their own significance.

Body language is also more important when there are no tables because it is exposed, so greater levels of self awareness are needed. Doubt, uncertainty, frustration, impatience, boredom, amusement and many other emotions will be communicated by your body and those of others. It's worth asking yourself periodically “what is my body communicating to others?" Similarly you can even more easily ‘read the runes’ by observing people's body language as well as listening to their words and watching their faces.

Look again at the picture above. Both positioning and body language make it even clearer than it would be around a meeting table that the man in the pink shirt is the dominant voice, probably the most senior person there and certainly the one setting the agenda. The two men on the right hand side, both leaning in, are active participants. The man in the check shirt in the bottom left corner and the woman in the blue jacket are less influential (leaning back, hands in laps). The man in the suit is reducing his impact by having a laptop on his lap, whereas the woman in purple with the yellow lanyard is well positioned to contribute, with space around her.

Standing Up

If you have been invited to give a presentation to the meeting, you can take the positioning advantage one step further by standing up. As soon as one person is on their feet, it automatically creates the expectation that they will speak and the others will listen. To make this work you need to do two things:

1) position yourself so you can see everyone. The end of the table is ideal although it might be wise to discuss this with the chairman/woman beforehand. Having some slides may help provide some justification if you are nervous about this. (Though you need to continue to address the people round the table and not get seduced into talking to the screen).

2) step up to the plate. Embrace the fact that you are the focus of everyone’s attention. It means you have the thing you wanted: the opportunity to influence people. The flip side of the attention is that it is, for most people, it can feel risky. So you must accept the scrutiny, even if you find it intimidating. And if you do find it intimidating you are not alone. The majority of the clients I coach on their presentation skills need help with this.

If you are similarly interested in sharpening your impact and getting your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


1 Mar

BLOG #8 Make Your Own Space

Getting the seat you want, as I advocated in Blog #7, might require you to get there early. Certainly if you’re one of the last to arrive, your choice is restricted to places rejected by those already present. But arriving early also opens up another possible route to greater influence by creating more space around you. And, as I described in Blog #3, space is power.

Compare these two pictures.

In the one on the left I am a bit hemmed in by the empty chairs on either side of me and this effect will be amplified when people are sitting in them.

But simply by moving the adjacent chairs away from mine, I create more space for myself in the picture on the right, and subtly elevate my status.

What’s more, many meeting tables are comprised of smaller tables and the default seating arrangement is often to have two chairs within one of these smaller tables. But even when there’s no one sitting there, as in the picture on the right, simply by sharing the space with an empty chair you project less status than if you have the table to yourself.

So choose a place where you have this smaller table to yourself and position yourself in the centre of it. Or perhaps remove the chair from the larger meeting table entirely. How often do you go to meetings where there are more chairs than people who will attend? If you look around the room you may well see other redundant chairs placed against the walls. No one will notice if you are the first in the room. And even if someone else is there before you, any curiosity at your moving the furniture is unlikely to be more than momentary.


6 Feb

BLOG #7 Seating Position

Your position at the table is another important indicator of your status at a meeting and making a conscious choice of seat can provide an easy way to boost your ability to get heard.

You probably intuitively know that the head of a rectangular table is usually the power position and it’s where you would expect the chair or the person running the meeting to sit. From here s/he can readily make eye contact with everyone and command their attention.

Authority is enhanced by control of, or even proximity to, technology. So the person sitting by a presentation screen, conference-calling equipment or even, to a lesser extent, a flip chart holds higher status than the person at the other end.

The next most powerful seating positions are the centres of the sides. From there, seats become progressively less influential until you reach the corners, which are generally the least powerful positions in the room. Unless, that is, there is a second rank of seating around the outside of the room. Occupy one of these chairs and you are effectively relegated to observer status.

The longer the table though, the harder it becomes to reach everyone, both vocally and with eye contact. So at a certain length of table a tipping point is reached and power switches to the middles of the long sides. It’s impossible to be exact about how many chairs there need to be before this happens as it will partly depend on how much space each chair occupies. But it explains why the British Prime Minister, for example, sits in the middle of a side, rather than at the head of the table

Round tables

Circles are the shape of democracy when it comes to meetings because there are no power positions at a round table and everyone is equally entitled to speak. There’s a good reason why the best known feature of life at Camelot was the shape of King Arthur’s table. And it explains why it’s the favoured shape whenever national leaders gather together.

Make a choice

When you walk into a meeting room, you make a choice about which chair to occupy. The likelihood is that this choice is currently made by System 1 as you slot yourself into an available position that suits how you perceive your status. But you almost certainly have the scope to make a different choice.

I am certainly not advocating striding assertively to one of the power positions unless you are ready to do battle with the alphas in the room. Raise your status too dramatically and others will feel affronted and make it their mission to bring you down. Even those whose System 2 thinking is generous – “it’s just a chair, why shouldn’t s/he sit there?” – will not have such benign System 1s. And what’s more you will not be able to sustain your raised status in the face of what may even be a coordinated attack.

But by choosing a chair closer to the power positions, perhaps just one seat in from the corner, you will subtly raise your status without raising the hackles of others.


9 Jan

BLOG #6 Leaning Out

It's worth acknowledging that there are circumstances in which leaning out can actually signal very high status, so you may see others doing it.

This is the silverback posture. Short of putting one's feet on the table it is just about the highest status thing one can do.

And that can work too.

What’s demonstrated by both of these photographs of President Obama is his relaxed assurance in his own dominance. You won’t often find pictures of him sitting like this at, for example, a G8 summit.

However it is only an option for those who already hold very high status in the room. You may have been in a meeting yourself where somebody very senior has sat back, detached from the conversation, perhaps even tapping away on a mobile device. After a while they may even have said quietly “so what's happening is this…" and captured entirely the nub of what's been said. After an impressed pause, everyone around the room agrees “yes, that's exactly it", marvelling at this ability to go straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, that intellectual acuity is partly why they hold high status.

So in meetings where you find yourself wanting to get your voice heard more, it’s very unlikely that this tactic will serve you. Leave it for occasions when you are the alpha.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


19 Dec

BLOG #5 Leaning In Part 2


In addition to the immediate visual impact of leaning in, the second reason it’s important is that your posture has a considerable impact on your voice. As I will explore in a later chapter, other people are subconsciously reading huge amounts about your status and belief in, and commitment to, your opinions from your voice. To support a voice that has weight and authority, you need a free flow of oxygen and sitting back in your chair inhibits this. Try it right now. Move your bottom forward until you are slumped backwards. Now try to take a deep breath and you'll find that you can't.

Your rib cage is collapsed and you can only fill your lungs to half or, at best, three quarter capacity. However strong or weak your voice, from this position you rob it of its full potential.

Now move your bottom to the back of the chair and sit up, leaning slightly forward. You will find that in this position you can freely breathe in and out and your voice is fully supported. You may even notice a difference between sitting upright but with your back against the backrest of the chair and upright leaning forward, with the latter affording your rib cage more freedom of movement. Whether it feels different or not, it will change the quality and tone of your voice. The change will pass unnoticed by System 2 of those listening to you. But System 1 will pick it up and their perception of your status will rise.


The third reason for leaning in is that it contributes energy.

This might seem a curious thing to attribute to the simple act of tilting one's torso forward. But when human beings are engaged in what they are doing, this engagement manifests itself in the whole body: face, eyes, hands, posture, legs, breathing, vocal energy and so on. Even the most cerebral academic has a direct connection between his or her feelings and their expression in his or her body. Admittedly in some particularly intellectually-focused individuals this connection is subdued, but anyone who knows the person well can still distinguish between energy and ennui.

Energy is a curious thing. It is the fuel of good meetings, sparking creativity, involvement, challenge, healthy debate, humour and many other wonderful things. But, as you have almost certainly experienced, meetings that lack energy are deathly.

Take a moment to think about people you know who are influential at meetings. And I mean people you admire, respect and are pleased to see because they make meetings more fun and productive rather than those drones one occasionally encounters who are influential in a negative way by stifling others and sucking the life out of discussion with their pedantry and mastery of procedure.

As someone who has chaired many meetings in his time, I can tell you that you love the people who feed the energy and can easily feel resentful towards those who do not. No chair or facilitator will feel inclined to go out of his or her way to encourage contributions from those who deplete the energy.

And the same goes for those attending the meeting, who are subconsciously picking up your level of engagement, via System 1, and continually making decisions about whether they are willing to hear what you have to say. When you lean forward, you contribute energy to the discussion. Because we are social creatures and influenced by those around us, we are energised by your energy. And we are readier to entertain contributions from those who energise us.

So if you are to raise your status and influence discussion at meetings where you currently feel unheard, you're not going to do it by mimicking the drones. Rather you should aim to emulate those who influence through positive energy. This does not mean you have to agree with everything or glibly endorse every suggestion. But it does mean you need to put in rather than take out.

This leads to what may be an uncomfortable question: do others experience you as someone who routinely feeds the energy at meetings? Or as someone who depletes it? Since you have chosen to read this book it’s unlikely that you are deliberately destructive. But is it possible that you are inadvertently adding to meeting malaise by, for example, leaning back? I've worked with many clients who were oblivious to the impact of their own energy–sapping behaviour. If you are serious about getting your voice heard at meetings, sometimes a good place to start is a long, hard look in the mirror.

A word of warning: if you should decide to follow the advice in these blogs and vlogs, lean forward, make eye contact and generally be more actively engaged than you are accustomed to, you will probably find it tiring. Being energised requires… well… energy and is one of the costs of getting your voice heard. But it is well worth it for the increase in influence it brings.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


5 Dec

BLOG #4 Eye Contact

Most likely you are already aware of the significance of eye contact in conversation. It’s very hard to engage with someone who does not look at you when speaking, and yet a significant minority of my clients, even those well into their careers, can still find this a challenge.

And the challenge is often magnified when speaking at meetings. Just like when giving a presentation, many people feel the pressure of being in the spotlight. And in many ways, speaking at a meeting is giving a presentation. You may have known that you would be called upon speak (in which case I would strongly advocate rehearsing what you plan to say), but even if you’re improvising, it is an opportunity to influence the thinking of everyone in the room. And to do this effectively you need to make eye contact with your audience, just as in a more formal presentation.

It can be very easy, especially if you feel intimidated by others at the meeting, simply to look at the table or into the middle distance ahead of you. But to do this risks others disengaging. At best they stop listening. And at worst they will interrupt you.

Or you may naturally find yourself speaking only to those whom you see as allies, effectively seeking their approval. But you must be sure to engage with everyone, spreading your eye contact around the room, including those people on the same side of the table as you. For most people this requires conscious effort, especially if you are to include those immediately to your side.

And the same applies when other people are speaking. If you follow the conversation with your eyes, others will see you as part of it. And therefore when you wish to speak, this is simply a natural progression of your participation. Whereas if you’re not visibly listening, it’s a bit like leaning back in your chair: you effectively leave the meeting. Others will be less likely to include you with their own eye contact and, when you do try to speak, it can be like trying to break into a conversation at a party. Others may subconsciously resent you for intruding on their conversation without invitation.

It’s worth mentioning that this active participation can be tiring, especially in long meetings. If you get back to your desk and find you are tired, this is actually a good sign because it probably means that you participated fully. It may take a while to get used to this, but it is well worth it in terms of increasing your influence.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


22 Nov

BLOG #3 Space is Power

In a crowded world, space is the privilege of wealth and influence and throughout history, the powerful have always claimed more of it.

Enormous hooped skirts allowed 18th-century aristocrats to take up space as only the rich could afford to do.

For a modern equivalent consider this photo of Rihanna. While the paparazzi are crammed together behind the barrier, the star has the red carpet all to herself and it would take a brave man to step on her train.

In the business world, think of the cliché of the CEO sitting behind his enormous desk in his enormous corner office.

And consider the popularity of huge four-wheel-drive cars amongst the urban wealthy? Resembling tanks more than cars, they are status symbols not simply because they are expensive, but also because they take up more space.

This same quality of space as power plays out around the meeting table. When you work with teams, as I often do, you know almost immediately who is the most senior person because the others will automatically afford him or her more space.

Look at this photograph of the British war cabinet from September 1939 and notice that Neville Chamberlain - prime minister at the time and seated in the centre of the front row - has more space around him. At that point Winston Churchill - standing directly behind Chamberlain - was only first Lord of the Admiralty. Although even here the space left deferentially by those standing either side of Churchill indicates his high status within the group.

For a more contemporary example, look at this picture of David Cameron's first Cabinet meeting after he had won a surprisingly large majority in the British election in 2015. His status that day was unassailable.

Next time you’re in a meeting look around the table and see who occupies the most space. Whether it’s been taken or given, most of this positioning is generated by System 1. Subconsciously no one wants to get too close to the top dog. This may be partly about fear of getting bitten, but it’s also about respect.

Others will automatically give you the space that System 1 sees as appropriate, but your tactic should be to increase your status by increasing your space. And if leaning in is the first step in making the most of the space you have, getting your hands on the table is the second.

What's interesting is that not only does taking up more space raise your external status - as perceived by others - it also raises your internal status - your own experience of it. An experiment by Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School associate professor, found that ‘power posing’ – standing with arms and legs outstretched, effectively taking up more space with the body – for as little as 2 minutes led to subjects feeling more powerful. Actors have known for many years that mimicking emotions with your body and face makes real emotions more accessible. Embodied cognition, as it is known, lies behind the maxim “fake it till you make it".

Cuddy’s research also showed that power posing raised subjects' levels of testosterone and decreases their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Hers is the second most watched TED talk of all time. Full disclosure: other researchers have since challenged her methodology and the physiological results have not always been replicated. But the positive effects on people’s subjective feelings of power is something I’ve seen many times over the years with my clients.

So when you place your hands on the desk in front of you, not only will others perceive you as higher status, you will feel higher status: more confident, more powerful, more capable. Perhaps not instantaneously. Perhaps not dramatically. But to be effective we are looking for lots of small, subtle increases that work in the subconscious.


Another means of acquiring more space at the table is to take up more room with your papers, pens, mobile devices and any other objects you have with you. Just as your hands denote ownership of the space in front of you, you mark your territory with your belongings.

So by placing your collateral to take up more space, as in the picture on the right, you expand your territory and acquire more status.

Obviously this could be taken to extremes. Placing objects too far from you will, at best, dilute any sense of territory and, at worst, make you look silly. You should also be wary of impinging on your neighbour's space. We may be social creatures but we are also territorial and acutely aware of intrusion into what we regard as ours. Invade your neighbour's territory and his or her System 2 will register the disregard that is implicit. Not only will the subsequent irritation not help you get your voice heard, System 1 will be even more hostile and devise ways to undermine you, even while System 2 is telling its owner that he or she is rising above it.

Similarly having too many objects spread out in front of you does not help create an expectation of incisive contribution. (There is also the question of whether your objects are arranged neatly or otherwise. I'm not personally convinced that it makes a huge difference, unless you are communicating either total chaos or an obsessive fixation with order.)

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


8 Nov

BLOG #2 Leaning In

Sheryl Sandberg's excellent book Lean In has a chapter titled ‘Sit at the Table’ that begins with a story about 4 female executives declining the invitation to sit at the table during a conference and consequently seeming like spectators. Sandberg goes on to examine the particular challenges faced by women in the workplace and how many inadvertently damage their careers with their own behaviour.

The advice to sit at the table applies to anyone, male or female, who wants to contribute to a meeting. You may have heard it said that you are not at a meeting until you have spoken and it’s true but it is also broadly true that to participate in a discussion you must not only sit at the table but be physically engaged.

Sandberg uses leaning in primarily as a metaphor but it is also sage advice on the physicality of influence.

The first, and most obvious, is the purely visual impact you have on others. It's not that people can't see you if you lean back, but they don’t register you as being involved in the discussion.

Imagine what kind of impact would be created by someone sitting in a meeting with his or her head on the table.

In a protracted meeting and with a contentious subject under discussion, you might even have some sympathy. But the message would be one of exhaustion and despair and it would hugely diminish both their credibility and their scope for influencing the meeting.

Leaning back risks creating a similar impact, albeit less dramatic. The System 2 of others may not consciously notice, but System 1 will register and negatively influence people’s receptivity to your contributions.

This is distinct to the advice I offered in the first blog to get your hands on the table. It’s possible to get your hands on the table without leaning in. And possible to lean in without getting your hands on the table. Both are important.

In this photo the man with glasses on the left is out of the loop of discussion. To get his voice in he will obviously have to lean forward. But if his status is low within this group he will have to work extra hard and with his posture he has made things unnecessarily difficult.

And the larger meeting, the harder this is. Take a look at the photo below and identify who’s in the discussion and who isn’t.

Those who are leaning in will find it much easier to get their voices heard. I'm not suggesting you should never lean back in your chair. It's entirely natural for our energy and interest to ebb and flow during a discussion and pretty unnatural - not to mention draining - for any individual to be continuously animated on every topic. But think about how much harder it is to get involved in a conversation at a party if you are outside a circle of people as opposed to once you are in the circle. By leaning back at meetings you put similar obstacles in your own way.

If you are struggling to get your voice heard at a meeting, then feeling intimidated or frustrated may cause you to sit back without thinking about it (this is your System 1 at work). Or it may be that, in common with many of my clients, your default posture is leaning back, in which case it may feel alien and uncomfortable to lean forward. But in the System 1 perception of others, you have only joined the discussion when you lean in.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


24 Oct

BLOG #1a Status and Systems 1 and 2

Most of what System 1 does happens subconsciously and one of its most obvious and immediate functions is to keep us safe. You have very likely had the experience of walking into a room and knowing immediately that there was tension in the air. Perhaps you felt threatened? Perhaps you sensed that people were having an argument that they have temporarily suspended? Or perhaps you just felt unwelcome? You can't quite put your finger on how you knew but you just knew.

In fact your System 1 was processing, at high speed, lots of subliminal data about people’s physical positioning, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, timing and subtext of speech, etc.

In the above example System 2 doesn’t usually register the details, it simply registers the tension. We can purposefully train our System 2 attention on people and things around us and weigh up what they mean and how we should respond in order to get what we want. But in contrast to the speed and immediacy of System 1, System 2 is deliberate, effortful and slow.

The idea that the brain operates on a subconscious, as well as a conscious, level has been around for a long time. But many Western schools of thought are still resistant to the idea that the subconscious mind significantly influences behaviour. Consider how economists long assumed that people act logically when taking financial decisions, despite money being one of the most emotionally charged parts of our lives.

Others recognise, but fear, the involvement of the subconscious. Mike Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox, characterises it as some sort of reckless, hedonistic, disruptive force that needs to be tamed if one is to live and work intelligently.

In fact over the past thirty years the research of Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and others has demonstrated that consciousness is made up of the interplay between Systems 1 & 2. Broadly speaking, System 1 evaluates what’s going on and offers up suggested action for ratification by System 2, which has a sort of executive overview. But System 2, which Kahneman describes as ‘the lazy controller’ generally just accepts System 1's recommendations.

So while we like to think System 2 is in charge, the overwhelming majority of our decisions are actually made by System 1. When you meet someone, System 1 gathers all sorts of detailed information about how they look, sound, move, shake hands, the tone of their voice, the expression in their eyes, etc. and passes its conclusion to System 2, which simply registers something broad like “he seems nice / intimidating / friendly / arrogant / sympathetic / smarmy etc".

This is why, when meeting someone for the first time, most of us realize after a few seconds that we don't remember their name, despite having just heard it. System 1 was using up all our attention, even though we didn't know it.

Similarly with people we know, System 1 picks up all sorts of detail about mood and intention and interprets it for System 2 which registers something like “she got out of bed on the wrong side this morning”. The better we know the person, the more subtle and detailed the cues we assess.

And System 1 then shapes most of our behaviour – how we position ourselves physically and whether we smile, look others in the eye, ask questions, disclose information and so on. And in certain circumstances System 1 simply takes charge without reference to System 2. This explains why you might find yourself saying you didn’t intend to or promising something without really knowing why. System 1 is especially vigilant where safety is involved and its response to threat is particularly relevant to meetings. I shall return to this subject in later blogs.

System 1 also incorporates learned expertise and behaviour as well as instinct and self-preservation. When you do something a lot, it can pass from System 2 to System 1 and you acquire the ability to do it without conscious thought. For example it’s impossible for you to read ‘2 + 2’ without the number 4 coming instantly to mind. Whereas to multiply 17 x 24 in your head would require the slow, effortful involvement of System 2.

Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink describes the impressive ability people acquire to make expert decisions instantly on the basis of ‘feel’, what he calls thin-slicing. He describes the fire chief who walked into a burning building to see his men dousing the flames and instantly ordered them out. Thirty seconds later the floor on which they were standing collapsed because the fire was actually on the floor below and they were simply hosing the tip of the flames rather than the base of the fire. The fire chief didn't consciously know why he made his decision, but he did know that something wasn't right. This was not guesswork. It was the product of a highly-developed System 1 understanding of the pattern of fire.

Or consider the racing driver who slammed on his brakes just before a corner. Doing so would almost certainly have lost him the race except that … around the corner was a crash. Afterwards he had no idea why he braked – and consider how fast these guys are making decisions – but had he taken the corner at race speed he would have ploughed straight into the site of the crash. In the middle of the night the same driver woke up suddenly realising that all the faces in the crowd were looking in the wrong direction. They should have been looking towards him as he approached the corner. Instead, they were all looking around the corner at the crash. This subconscious processing – System 1 – may have saved his life.

This ability to thin-slice is something we all possess when it comes to reading status: people make continual, although subconscious, assessment of those around them. So if you project low status at meetings, others will treat you as peripheral to the discussion and you will find it hard to get your voice heard. If you try to leapfrog to the top of the pecking order however, you will probably get slapped down by the big beasts (that’s three animal metaphors in the same sentence). So subtle, almost imperceptible increments are the way to go.

If you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk


24 Oct

BLOG #1 Raising your status

What meetings are really about

The first thing to understand about meetings is the primal nature of what's going on below the surface. Human beings are social creatures and our position within the hierarchy is enormously important to us for reasons linked to survival, reproduction and other big evolutionary drivers.

So manoeuvring and positioning is an unstoppable part of the dynamics that emerge whenever a group gathers together. When you are one of the more junior people at a meeting it can be tempting to switch off or to decide that the power politics is childish and resolve not to engage with it. But to do this will rob you of influence and consign you to a working life peppered with frustration and wasted time.

I describe on the home page of my website billbritten.co.uk the two systems the brain uses for processing information and decision-making. ‘System 1’ is the automatic, intuitive, instantaneous evaluations we make of people and situations and ‘System 2’ is the intentional, considered thinking done by the conscious mind. While we like to think System 2 is in charge, the overwhelming majority of our decisions are actually made by System 1.


The significance of all this, in terms of meetings, is that although discussion may appear to be conducted with logic and reasoned argument (System 2), people’s behaviour – including yours and mine – is dominated by System 1. This includes decisions about whom to listen to. And the single biggest influence on System 1 is the other person’s status.

By status I do not mean simply position within the organisational hierarchy. I’m describing a much more subtle assessment of social dominance and influence. Most people automatically defer to those with higher status and expect deference from those with lower status. The assessment of others’ status relies on many small cues, only one of which is job title. And since it’s System 1 that’s doing the assessing, these cues mostly go unnoticed by System 2: eye contact, vocal tone, posture, gesture, timing and speed of speech, etc. etc. etc.

Think about a meeting you attend regularly. You could almost certainly name those with the highest and lowest status. With some people this will be partly a reflection of their formal role, at least in a healthy organisation. But some people will be punching above or below their weight, holding higher or lower status than others who are technically their peers. You could probably rank those who attend and what’s more, assuming you’re neither the top dog nor the whipping boy, you could probably say fairly precisely where you are in the pecking order (it’s interesting how many animal metaphors there are for status).

So if you want to get your voice heard more, you have to affect others’ System 1 perceptions of you and, in particular, you have to influence their perception of your status so you are viewed as someone who merits attention and airtime rather than someone marginal whose opinion counts for little. Many people make the mistake of assuming that the only way they can raise their status, other than by getting promotion, is by the intelligence and usefulness of what they say. While these things certainly count, just as important is the question of how one behaves and speaks.

Status at meetings is not a zero-sum game between you and another individual. There is usually no exact hierarchy, so by raising your status enough to get your voice heard, you do not necessarily have to push others down. Having said that, if others feel their own status is threatened by a change in yours, they may oppose it. So you should look to increase your status subtly, such that those around the table do not consciously notice. Occasionally your neighbours, in status terms, may sense the shift. But they won't know what you’ve done or – if they don’t like it - how to resist.

If this is all sounding horribly Machiavellian and contrary to your generosity of spirit, let me add that not only would I discourage you from using it in a malign or egotistical fashion, I think that doing so is ultimately counter-productive.

You may well know someone, an ‘operator’, who is extremely good at manipulating meetings for his or her own purposes. You may even have the misfortune to work in an organisation where such behaviour is accepted or even rewarded. Just consider for a moment your own emotional reaction to that person. Do you trust them? When they seek your help, do you want to offer it? If they were in trouble, would you rush to their aid?

In most circumstances System 1 is very sophisticated and accurate at reading the intentions of others. So if your purpose is negative or destructive towards somebody else, they will probably feel it. What I am offering you is tools to raise your profile and get your voice heard. If you use them deviously, people will experience you as devious. But if you use them to make a positive contribution, then this is what people will intuitively recognise.

The good news is that a few simple changes can make an enormous difference. And it’s the aim of these blogs to help you grow your awareness, raise your status and thereby influence the perceptions (and behaviour) of others so that they welcome your contributions.

Let’s start with something really easy to put into practice. Compare these 2 photographs:


Simply by placing my hands on the table, I acquire greater authority and status. I’m more likely to be listened to when I speak and your expectation is probably also that my voice will be stronger, louder, firmer.

It’s a simple demonstration of an important principle when it comes to raising your status: space is power. In the picture on the right I have territory: I own my portion of the desk. In the picture on the left I don’t.

This idea – that space is power – is something I’ll return to in later blogs. But for now I suggest you try consciously getting your hands onto the table and noticing who else around the table does so and how it affects your perception of their status.

And if you’d like to discuss how I can help you sharpen your impact at meetings and get your voice heard, I’d love to hear from you on +44 7973 890578 or at bill@billbritten.co.uk

If you’re interested in the research into this, Blog #1a goes into more of the theory and, in particular, reviews the work of Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists to explore how Systems 1 & 2 work and interact. But if your interest is more in the immediate application of it – what you can do to get your voice heard, then jump to Blog #2 Leaning in.

BillPicI will be posting regular blogs here featuring practical techniques to help you get your voice heard.

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