Covering the topic of how to own your personal space became an immediate priority for me after watching the viral video of Tony Robbins using his physical presence, vocal tone, and words to intimate seminar guest Nanine McCool who disagreed with his take on the #MeToo movement. You can see the video here.
Tony has already issued apologies about the incident, and I’m not here to roast him. Rather, let’s take the opportunity to look at how people use their bodies and voices to exert themselves. You can see how Tony approaches and then starts pushing Nanine backward with his body that he is confident in owning and using his personal space and vocals. He knows that by invading her space, he can make her uncomfortable or even afraid. It’s quite easy to do when you’re 6’7, weigh 250 pounds (give or take) and speak publicly for a living.
But what if you’re 5’5, weigh half as much as the person confronting you, and aren’t comfortable with conflict? Let’s define personal space and then discuss how to use it to protect or project depending on your goals.
Define “Personal Space”
According to Dictionary.com, personal space is “the physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them.” UrbanDictionary.com gives a more specific definition: “Roughly defined as a one-foot radius around a person. It can only be entered by close friends, family members, significant others, etc. You know when you’re in a person’s personal space.”
When someone purposefully trespasses into your personal space without permission, you may assume they:
- Want to make you feel uncomfortable
- Don’t understand unspoken boundaries set by societal norms for the situation
Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in a Psychology Today article about four zones of personal space based on distance. She further explains that the comfort level you experience in each of these zones is triggered by your brain’s amygdala and its acute purpose of sensing of danger. The frontal cortex can help calm this reaction by using what it knows about societal norms and beliefs while growing up. There’s a lot of give and take in this physical/emotional push and pull so you react appropriately in a situation. Overall, personal space isn’t just an invisible physical barrier, it’s also an emotional barrier.
Here are some effective ways for women to own their space when another person is violating your comfort zone.
Owning Your Personal Space: Super Hero Stance
We’ve all heard that posture is highly effective, but you have to look at your overall stance. Your stance can serve to protect your space and project the message that you hold your own. Practice placing your shoulder blades so they touch each other in the middle of your back. It will feel awkward at first, but that’s because modern-day living has relaxed our back muscles to the point where we are almost always concave. Keep practicing this shoulder-blade exercise while standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. An alternative to hands on your hips is crossing arms high across your chest like a football player or bar bouncer. This can come across as a negative sign, but it’s still highly effective or female police officers wouldn’t use it. Now, keep your chin parallel to the ground and practice direct eye contact in a full-length mirror.
Look how much space you’re taking up! Think like a peacock: BIG AND BOLD.
Your chest projects outward (a big bust line helps even more), your feet show you’re steady and firm, and your prominent elbows are tough little buggers who can defend themselves well. Subconsciously, you’re saying, “I own a lot of personal space, and you aren’t invited in.”
Owning Your Personal Space: The “Me First” Handshake
Many of us are intimated or feel rude if we deflect someone who goes in for a hug or kiss at an inappropriate time. If you see the motion in motion, act first! Immediately stick your hand out for a firm handshake. Extend forward and across your body. Two to three pumps, and release. This is an offensive and defensive maneuver that can stop the would-be offender in his/her tracks yet still adheres to conventional manners. Next, jump into asking a question that will divert their attention or excuse yourself. When you feel you’re ready or feel it necessary, this gesture can become a full-on “stop” hand signal— palm facing strongly toward the other person like they are a kid at a crosswalk.
Owning Your Personal Space: Power of The Pause
If disagreement is involved, I found great advice from communications expert and vocal coach LeAnn Pashina. “People are afraid of the pause. When you’re in the confrontation and you pause, you stand in your confidence. It gives you time to process it. Time to breathe.” She adds that it’s just as important to slow down your speech, keep your vocal key lower (we tend to squeal when nervous), and avoid “up talk.” That’s when you end sentences like questions. “I know, right?”
Owning Your Personal Space: Wear Armor
I’ve touched on this topic in my article “Corporate Culture vs. The Power Suit” with a reference to Zoë Barry, CEO of ZappRx, who claims over-the-knee boots are part of her armor. They are her power boots, and people take notice when she stomps down the hallway determined and driven. Find something that makes you feel the same way. If you anticipate being in a situation where owning your personal space will be tested, here are a few ideas to help you prepare (add your armor strategies to the comments below):
— Red. Red lipstick, red shoes, a red pant suit. Red is highly energetic and culturally represents strength, power, and danger. It’s frequently used in soldiers’ and athletes’ uniforms and national symbols. Pair it with black and you have a visually dominant look. However, black recedes and can work against you if the color is too intense for your natural color scheme or physique. In that case, mix red with a power print like gray pinstripes or plaids.
— Wrap up tight. Shapewear, body suits, form-fitting blazers, turtle necks… This is not so you look thinner– remember, we want to take up more space. Rather, the firm embrace of the fabric can make you feel secure. It’s proven that wrapping tight (in a blanket, for instance) helps calm children and adults who are on the autism spectrum. We can feel that same sense of security by using this “security blanket” strategy in a stressful situation.
— The Power Accessory. We all have one. Valentino-esque studded stilettos that make you feel like Beyoncé. A Prada handbag that says “I’m prosperous and powerful.” A diamond (synthetic or not) cross necklace that says “I’m tough and have faith on my side.” Military leaders are highly decorated for a reason. Medals and ribbons have symbolic meaning, demand respect, and speak to who you are and what you’ve achieved. Use these kind of visual cues to reinforce your message!
One last thing…
We see a lot of turmoil and conflict in society right now, and one way to achieve peaceful debate/resolution is to own your space and also respect other people’s personal space. Speak candidly but not cruelly. Avoid name-calling or inferring that your opinion is more important than someone else’s opinion. Agree to disagree. And don’t be afraid to change your mind if a counter argument proves you wrong or proves there is more than one answer to the problem at hand.