Dominance is a subject that is often misunderstood. Not least because a lot of people are not naturally dominant.

Someone who is dominant takes charge of situation. He (or she, but we'll be dealing with this from a male point of view mainly) makes decisions and follows through on them. He backs up those decisions. He displays confidence.

There are two places where most guys falls flat when it comes to dominance:

  1. You're not dominant if you keep asking for permission. Saying "let's do this! ... unless there's something else you'd rather do?" is not dominant.

  2. Being dominant does not mean forcing someone into submission. E.g. using violence or just talking someone into accepting what you say out of boredom or intimidation - neither are dominance.

It's the second one I'll deal with here.

Real dominance is hard. It takes practice, and it takes real strength, conviction and confidence.

It also takes respect. Both ways.

The difference is that a man that is truly dominant will go in and convincingly mark himself as the alpha in a position. His body language will be confident but relaxed.

When he does, people will listen, and they will respect his decisions (as long as they are reasonable), and they will defer to them, sometimes even when they don't agree with them.

And when a dominant does not get what he wants immediately, he stays his course, and gradually establishes his position through conviction of strength, without intimidation or force.

When a bully wants something, on the other hand, he will go in with a lot of bravado, he will often be loud. He'll posture. His body language will often be aggressive.

Others may initially challenge him, in which case he'll react with anger or more aggressive stances, or they may avert their gaze and stay quiet to avoid confrontation.

You've seen them out on the town, almost (and sometimes literally) circling like bulls ready to lock horns.

People may obey the bully, but they do so out of fear of repercussions, not out of respect.

When the bully doesn't get immediate compliance, he'll get angry, where someone displaying dominance will be relaxed and not get reactive, but either address the issue raised head on, or shut down whoever is causing problems in a calm but firm manner.

Note that you can have dominant traits and be a bully at the same time. Many dominant men are bullies some of the time, such as when they have a genuine reason to be angry. Sometime this marks a limit to their dominance - they get angry when something is beyond their ability to control. Other times they have genuine anger issues, or lack confidence in their abilities.

Let's look at some aspects of this.

Dominant body language

One of the first things that are obvious when judging if someone is truly dominant or just putting on a show (often hiding a bully) is body language.

Classic shows of dominance is to be relaxed, and unguarded. Often more so than your surroundings.

Look at how you act around close friends. You're happy to sink back in a chair, lean back when standing around. You bare your chest and throat rather than protect them with your arms. You're more likely to clasp your hands behind your head.

You will take up more space than you otherwise do, spreading your legs and arms out.

These are signs of a great deal of comfort. We're still animals - we don't casually bare our belly, chest or neck in situations where we feel weak or insecure. We similarly will almost never lock our hands behind our head if we don't feel in charge of the situation. (Look around the room the next times you're in meetings, or social situations - if someone locks their hands behind their head, they either are in charge or think they are)

In the same situation, the bully might lean forward, especially with his shoulders and chest, creating an impression he's bigger and more threatening than he really is, clench his jaw, clutch his hands. He might not do all of these, but certainly some, with various degree of subtlety. He might show some signs of dominance too, but more likely he'll show his hand by displaying signs of insecurity or aggression.

When making decisions

One of the big things that guys don't get about dominance is the need to make decisions. It's a major problem women have with men, and it's also one where the bully vs. dominant man becomes very apparent.

Note that this goes even if you don't care about the outcome. One big frustration one of my past long-term partners had with me, was that while I am very dominant in situations that I care about the outcome of, I am also very laid back and there would be a lot of situations where I, e.g., couldn't care less which of 3 possible movies we'd go to see - I intended to see all of them at one point or other, and just wanted to spend the time with her, but where she saw my lack of willingness to just cut through and make a decision as infuriating. Because she didn't want to make the decision either, and if I said "I don't care - which one do you want to see?", I put here in the same position I had just avoided myself.

There was a comedy sketch show in the UK where a recurring character would simply yell "maaaan? maaan!?!" whenever she wanted a man to show up out of nowhere to fix things or make a decision. My ex eventually took to copying that to signal to me when she thought I was evading making a decision.

You absolutely have to get used to deciding things and acting on them without asking her opinion all the time. On the other hand that does NOT mean railroading her into something she doesn't want.

It also means you must take care to NOT take it too far - you need to gauge how much she can handle. Some women like a guy to take detail-control of things (but will occasionally signal when they want to make their own decisions, and expect you to respect that), while other just want you to lead on a semi-regular basis. Yet others wants to boss you around, most of the time, but wants to know you can lead.

This is confusing.

An example. Imagine you and your date want to grab dinner.

Dominance is saying "there's this great Chinese place over there, let's go!", while 1) knowing, because you've shown enough interest in her, that she loves Chinese and 2) being prepared to listen if she objects and want to go somewhere else. Alternatively saying "there's this great Chinese place over there. I'm going today. Come along!" being prepared to accept you might end up going alone.

Bullying is saying "We're going to this Chinese place," while 1) not having a clue if she's interested or if she hates Chinese and/or not caring, and/or 2) shutting her down ("Fuck that. We're going") when she tells you she doesn't like Chinese.

Obviously there's a whole sliding scale here. Sometimes it's incredibly sexy to a woman if you shut her down too, but you need to understand her and not overdo it. Women are not the same - one womans sexy display of dominance is another womans abuse.

You also need to listen, and understand that women want men to make decisions, and they then love to be able to talk him out of it. The difference between being dominant and a pussy is:

  1. making the decision in the first place, and
  2. being firm enough that she'll only want to change your mind if it truly matters to her,
  3. not fold immediately,
  4. not fold on matters that are integral to who you are (but accept it may end a relationship; if so, it should),
  5. not whine. Never whine. If she objects, don't go "but whyyy? We haven't had Chinese in ages" - rather go "what do you suggest? It better be good if I'm going to miss my Chinese", with a smirk.
  6. make it a trade, and make it sound like it's a good one. "Hmm. That does actually sound really nice... But you owe me a trip to the [other place]".
  7. don't fold all the time. Or even most of the time.

Now, if you feel most at home letting a woman take charge, find one that is dominant (and realize most of what I write is probably not for you). That's fine - nothing wrong with that. It's just not for me.

Voice and language

The dominant man will speak calmly, but firmly. He may speak with a loud and deep voice, but he's unlikely to be yelling unless the situation clearly dictates it, and even less likely to be screaming.

He may even lower his voice when saying something particularly important, knowing that his audiences natural reaction is to quiet down, lean closer and pay extra attention to catch what someone who is taking the lead is saying.

He will use language that assumes compliance. He will not feel the need to use forceful orders. His language will often be positive - he expects people to follow his instructions successfully. E.g. he may say "We need to do X; John, I expect you'll have no problem having that done by Monday". He is also quick to praise, especially praising effort - which is more effective than praising results.

The bully on the other hand raises his voice, speaks faster, and tries to speak over anyone else. At any sign of opposition he is likely to get louder and more agitated. He leaves few gaps for other to interject objections.

He will use language that assumes opposition, possibly using hints of threat, or forceful words to get compliance, and sometimes insulting or coarse language. E.g. he may say "This is enough! It's time you stop fucking this up! John, get your act together and do X by Monday, or I'll have your ass".

(Meanwhile, a weak "leader" will use imprecise language that does not create a commitment. E.g. he may say "We need to do X; I think it's important we get it done by Monday", without assigning any tasks to any specific people, leaving it to someone else to make the decision whether or not to actually get something done - this often leads to confusion with those you are supposed to lead about who should do what, and tasks will often get dropped)

Note that you can be dominant and coarse and forceful too - pep-talks will often be "cruder" and more intense. The difference is that when exhibiting dominance this is presented in a way that is clearly not personal and insulting. Saying "Stop being pussies - go out there and Win!" is not being a bully in a context where coarse language is normal. A "bully version" might be similar, but negative, e.g. "don't fucking lose again" instead of focusing on the positive.

When challenged

Imagine an important discussion about launching a new project, and the other side starts raising objections.

The dominant guy might lean back, clasp his hands behind his head, and calmly say something like:

"That's an interesting suggestion. I'll have a look at it. But right now we need to get started, so lets agree to chat about this again once it's off the ground"

The bully might react by leaning forward, raising a hand and pointing, and loudly saying something like:

"There's no way that'll work, and it's outside the scope. We're going to do this the way it was agreed. Understood?"

(or he might go off the rails and get much more aggressive).

The difference lies in whether or not he sees the challenge as a threat, or as genuinely intended in a positive way. Someone truly dominant rarely sees something as a threat, or at least not as a credible one, while the bully constantly worries about challenges being threats.

Consider if a small person threatened to beat you up. Chances are high you'd find it more amusing than scary, and so you might lean back and smile and tell him to bring it on, without going into a defensive posture. (The ultimate "insult" to someone who threatens you, is to seem relaxed, but realize this also invites attacks from crazy people who for whatever reason believes they can achieve something; sometimes the right thing to do is still to be prepared to show an aggressive pose briefly to demonstrate your position in situations where you're facing risk of physical aggression from someone smaller)

Now consider if someone your own size, but someone you'd likely beat did the same time - if what you might be fighting over was important enough to you for you not to turn and run, you'd quite likely adapt an aggressive stance and try to portray yourself as stronger and badder than you are.

These are analogous to the dominant man vs. the bully when challenged. The bully is trying to hit above his weight, and so resorts to aggressive posturing and defensive positions, while the dominant man doesn't feel threatened.

(Of course there are situations where anyone will rightfully adapt a defensive position and posture to try to psyche out an opponent - even then, the difference lies in the degree of calmness displayed).

Applying this to real life

  • Try to make your body language more confident.
  • Be firm, but never insulting.
  • Speak calmly; control your voice.
  • Make decisions and state what you've decided, without tacking questions onto the end.
  • Accept objections, and move on without getting aggressive.
  • Lead.

Further reading

I learnt a lot of what I know about body-language from reading What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-reading People (affiliate link; if you don't want me to get a commission, go to Amazon and cut and paste the title), and subsequently spending a lot of time observing the various behaviours this book outlines.