Making yourself small

Dis­claimers:

  • Epistemic sta­tus: try­ing to share a sim­plified model of a thing to make it eas­ier to talk about; con­fi­dent there’s some­thing there, but not con­fi­dent that my read of it or this at­tempt at sim­plifi­ca­tion is good.

  • This post is a rewrite of a talk I gave at a CFAR event that seemed well-re­ceived; a cou­ple of peo­ple who weren’t there heard about it and asked if I’d ex­plain the thing. I tried to write this rel­a­tively quickly and keep it rel­a­tively short, which may mean it’s less clear than ideal—happy to hash things out in the com­ments if so.

  • The thing is much eas­ier to de­scribe if I oc­ca­sion­ally use some woo-y lan­guage like “aura” and “en­ergy” to ges­ture in the di­rec­tion of what I mean. I’ll put these words in quotes so you know I know I’m be­ing woo-y; feel free to men­tally in­sert “some­thing-you-might-call-” be­fore each in­stance, if that helps.

Ra­tion­al­ists love talk­ing about sta­tus. And that’s great—it’s a use­ful idea, for sure.

But I think in our ea­ger­ness to no­tice and ap­ply the con­cept of sta­tus, we end up con­flat­ing it with a re­lated-but-differ­ent thing. I also think the differ­ent thing is su­per use­ful in its own right, and im­por­tant to un­der­stand, and I hope shar­ing my rel­a­tively ba­sic thoughts on it will also let oth­ers build off that be­gin­ning.

So this post is my at­tempt to ex­plain that differ­ent thing. I’m go­ing to call it “mak­ing your­self big” and “mak­ing your­self small”.


This post:

  1. Horses, goats, bulls

  2. A framework

  3. What to do with it


1. Horses, goats, bulls

Let’s start with an an­i­mal show­ing how it’s done. This video popped up in my feed re­cently, and is an amaz­ing ex­am­ple of an an­i­mal (the goat) “mak­ing him­self big”. To us, it’s ob­vi­ous that the bull could flat­ten the goat in any real con­test. But the bull doesn’t know that! He’s not rea­son­ing about rel­a­tive mass or propul­sive power; he’s re­spond­ing purely to how “big” the goat is mak­ing his “aura”.

Watch the video and see if you can no­tice speci­fi­cally how the goat is do­ing this.

0:07 - where the goat rears up—is an ob­vi­ous mo­ment, but I claim 0:30-0:36 is even bet­ter, where the bull feints for­ward a cou­ple of times while the goat stands firm, us­ing his pos­ture to “pro­ject” his “en­ergy” ir­re­press­ibly for­ward. The bull is sim­ply un­able to con­tinue to­ward him.


The next two ex­am­ples are of a hu­man work­ing with horses, to show ex­am­ples of it looks like for a hu­man to be big or small.

(Full dis­clo­sure: this post is ac­tu­ally de­scribing a con­cept I ported over di­rectly from horse­man­ship. Due to the amount of time I spent as a kid think­ing about horse train­ing, my brain is ba­si­cally just a bunch of horse metaphors stacked on top of each other.)

First, get­ting big. The clip I’ll link to shows a stal­lion who was ab­nor­mally poorly trained, plus prob­a­bly suffered some brain dam­age as a foal, who as a re­sult is ab­nor­mally ag­gres­sive. The trainer, there­fore, needs to make him­self much big­ger than is nor­mally nec­es­sary to keep the stal­lion away from him.

Watch 0:30-0:50 of this video (warn­ing: the video is slightly graphic if you watch all the way to the end).

See how the trainer uses his flag and mo­tion/​”en­ergy” to­wards the stal­lion to make him­self big­ger, which pushes the horse away from him—with­out us­ing any phys­i­cal con­tact? No­tice that the trainer does not hit the horse. (The mo­tions he’s mak­ing may look like threats to strike, and it’s true that “mak­ing your­self big” ul­ti­mately rests on im­plied threat, but it’s the same fla­vor of threat that the goat is mak­ing in the video above—made much more of bluster than of ca­pac­ity to harm.) I’m pretty con­fi­dent this horse has never been struck by a hu­man in his life, and cer­tainly not by this trainer. He’s not re­call­ing pre­vi­ous pain caused by this hu­man and mov­ing back to avoid it; he’s just in­stinc­tively mak­ing space for how “big” the trainer has made him­self.

I found it harder to find a good clip of get­ting small, but I think this one of the same trainer work­ing with a trou­bled mare is pretty good—watch 1:16-1:45 of this video.

Can you see the mo­ments where he is “small­est”? The first is at 1:33, where he’s phys­i­cally walk­ing away—he’s ac­tu­ally mak­ing him­self so small that a “vac­uum” is cre­ated in his wake, and the mare walks to­wards him to fill it.

A more clas­sic ex­am­ple is 1:41-1:45. No­tice that his body faces away from the mare; he does not make eye con­tact with her; he moves slowly. In re­sponse, she’s able to be close to him, be­cause his “aura” (un­like at 0:18-0:26, 1:16-1:21, or 1:39) is not push­ing her away.


Hope­fully you now feel like you have some in­tu­ition for what mak­ing your­self “big” or “small” could mean at all. The above ex­am­ples show “big­ness” and “smal­l­ness” caus­ing other an­i­mals to phys­i­cally move their bod­ies; I claim that this type of body lan­guage is a sig­nifi­cant part of how so­cial mam­mals like cows, goats, and horses com­mu­ni­cate with each other.

So how does this ap­ply to hu­man-hu­man in­ter­ac­tions?

You guessed it: it turns out that hu­mans are so­cial mam­mals too! We just have more com­pli­cated ways of mov­ing our bod­ies around. (e.g., wig­gling our mouth-parts in ways in­tended to pro­duce spe­cific vibra­tions in the ears of peo­ple nearby.)

2. A framework

Be­fore giv­ing some hu­man-to-hu­man ex­am­ples, here’s a sim­plified frame­work to dis­t­in­guish high/​low sta­tus from mak­ing your­self big/​small.

High/​low sta­tus is about (among other things):

  • How much power you have

  • How much at­ten­tion you can expect

  • How much space you are en­ti­tled to

Mak­ing your­self big/​small is about (among other things):

  • How much power you are exercising

  • How much at­ten­tion you are demanding

  • How much space you are tak­ing up

It’s pretty easy to think of ex­am­ples of peo­ple who are high sta­tus and tend to make them­selves big, or low sta­tus and tend to make them­selves small. Here’s an ex­am­ple of each:

(That’s Elon Musk and Neville Long­bot­tom, if you don’t rec­og­nize them.)

But what goes in the other cor­ners? I en­courage you to try to gen­er­ate an ex­am­ple of each be­fore scrol­ling down. (I’d love to hear in the com­ments what you came up with, and if you still think they’re good ex­am­ples af­ter read­ing the rest of the post.)

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.

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doop

doop

doop

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making

space

so

you

can

think

about

it

yourself

.

.

.

okay,

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.

.

here

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.

.

you

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go...

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My low/​big ex­am­ple is the very same Neville Long­bot­tom of low/​small fame. But this time, it’s Neville in a very spe­cific scene—the one at the end of the first Harry Pot­ter book, where he tries to pre­vent his friends from leav­ing the com­mon room. As you may re­mem­ber, this doesn’t end par­tic­u­larly well for him; in­deed, mak­ing your­self big­ger than the “size” that cor­re­sponds to how much sta­tus you have is of­ten not a very suc­cess­ful move.

(Which makes sense in the frame­work above. What would you ex­pect to hap­pen to some­one who is try­ing to ex­er­cise more power than they have, de­mand more at­ten­tion than they can ex­pect, or take up more space than they’re en­ti­tled to? I do think low/​big can some­times be effec­tive, but it’s tough to pull off.)

The high/​small ex­am­ple is even more in­ter­est­ing. The image is of Anna Sala­mon, one of the cofounders of CFAR. I don’t want to re­fer to teacher-Anna, who stands in front of a room and com­mands at­ten­tion, but to men­tor-Anna.

Men­tor-Anna (whom you prob­a­bly meet in a set­ting where she is fairly high-sta­tus, as a teacher or or­ga­nizer or gen­er­ally a per­son-whom-oth­ers-seem-to-re­spect) sits in a cir­cle with you, or across from you one-on-one, and makes her­self small. She doesn’t play low-sta­tus—she doesn’t act scared or pow­er­less or shy. In­stead, she talks slowly, leaves plenty of silence for you to fill, phys­i­cally takes up a small amount of space (with knees to her chest, or legs crossed and hands in front of her, or similar), of­ten looks away from you, and doesn’t in­ter­rupt. In re­sponse, the peo­ple she’s talk­ing with tend to be drawn out of them­selves; they have space to re­flect; they share half-baked plans and half-ac­knowl­edged in­se­cu­ri­ties. They “ex­pand” to fill the space she has cre­ated.

3. What to do with it

As with con­cepts like sta­tus or SNS/​PSNS ac­ti­va­tion, I think what’s use­ful about hav­ing this con­cept in your men­tal toolbox is that you can prac­tice:

1) notic­ing it at play in your­self and others

2) mov­ing where you are on the spec­trum

For the lat­ter, prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant thing is your men­tal/​emo­tional state—a friend sug­gested “not want­ing to star­tle a small bird” as an mind­set to in­habit, to en­courage your­self to be­come “smaller”.

If you want more con­crete/​phys­i­cal sug­ges­tions, here are a few:

  • In­ter­rupt less

  • Be silent more (both by paus­ing while you’re speak­ing, and by wait­ing a lit­tle longer be­fore speak­ing af­ter some­one else)

  • Use less eye con­tact (both with the per­son you’re speak­ing with, and with oth­ers nearby—e.g. avoid the clas­sic move of look­ing at ev­ery­one around the cir­cle to see if they found your joke funny)

  • Take up less phys­i­cal space (curl your body in rather than puffing it out, even if only slightly; lean away rather than to­ward)

  • Make hedged sug­ges­tions or share ten­ta­tive ideas, rather than us­ing more com­mand-like lan­guage (ex­am­ple “smaller” lan­guage: “what do you think of the idea of…”; “how would it be if we…”; “maybe one op­tion would be…”)

(By con­trast, tips on how to play low sta­tus would be more like “make your­self seem defense­less/​weak/​sub­mis­sive”.)

I’ve fo­cused on mak­ing your­self small in this post, since I think it’s un­der­val­ued rel­a­tive to mak­ing your­self big. But since ev­ery piece of ad­vice can be re­versed, maybe also con­sider whether you should be mak­ing your­self big more of­ten, and how you would do that? (Suggested mind­set: be a mata­dor, own­ing the arena de­spite the bull charg­ing at you.)


This is the part of the post where videos of hu­man-to-hu­man ex­am­ples would be re­ally helpful. Un­for­tu­nately I found it tricky to come up with ex­am­ples I could search for that aren’t just high/​big or low/​small (e.g. the clas­sic “new kid takes down the bully” scene in lots of high school movies usu­ally in­volves the new kid “get­ting big”, but also do­ing a bunch of high-sta­tus be­hav­ior, which doesn’t seem very helpful for ex­plain­ing). Given that this post has been sit­ting in “drafts” for a cou­ple of weeks now, wait­ing for me to get around to find­ing bet­ter ex­am­ples, I de­cided to go ahead and post it with­out more videos.

But to point a lit­tle more to­wards why you should care at all, here are some brief de­scrip­tions of ex­am­ple situ­a­tions where I claim this con­cept is rele­vant and use­ful (please men­tally in­sert ad­di­tional “I claim”s in any un­in­tu­itive-seem­ing places):

  • Per the Anna ex­am­ple above, mak­ing your­self small is a re­ally good way to non-ex­plic­itly en­courage some­one who seems shy/​in­timi­dated/​ret­i­cent to feel more com­fortable com­ing out of their shell.

  • At the top, I said peo­ple of­ten con­flate high/​low sta­tus with mak­ing your­self big/​small. As an ex­am­ple, when meet­ing new peo­ple (e.g. at a party or net­work­ing event), you might go from think­ing “higher sta­tus is bet­ter” to “I should make my­self as big as pos­si­ble”. But this of­ten back­fires, ei­ther be­cause you be­come in­timi­dat­ing (see pre­vi­ous bul­let) or be­cause you in­fringe upon the “space”/​”aura” of oth­ers, caus­ing them to feel hos­tile/​defen­sive/​ag­gres­sive. De­cou­pling mak­ing your­self smaller from play­ing low sta­tus can help you make a much bet­ter im­pres­sion—nei­ther “loud and brash” nor “scared and shy”; more like “self-con­tained and con­fi­dent”.

  • In any con­text where you want the peo­ple around you to pay at­ten­tion to some­one else (e.g. if you’re mak­ing a joint pre­sen­ta­tion of some kind, and it’s their turn to hold the floor), mak­ing your­self small will make it eas­ier for that per­son to take up the space and hold the at­ten­tion of oth­ers.

  • As with lots of in­ter­per­sonal con­cepts, this can also be use­ful in­ter­nally: if you’re fa­mil­iar with in­ter­nal dou­ble crux /​ in­ter­nal fam­ily sys­tems /​ other “parts-work”, play around with the mo­tion of hav­ing parts of your­self make them­selves small (or big).

  • More gen­er­ally, di­rect­ing your “en­ergy”/​”aura” in other ways (be­yond just “big­ger”/​”smaller”) - and notic­ing oth­ers do­ing it—can be use­ful in tons of situ­a­tions. As a triv­ial ex­am­ple, try it the next time you’re in that situ­a­tion where you bump into some­one walk­ing in the other di­rec­tion, and the two of you can’t figure out which side to pass each other on.

I hope those brief de­scrip­tions make sense just based on this post; if not, I can ex­pand on in them the com­ments if there’s in­ter­est. I’d also be cu­ri­ous for what ex­am­ples you can come up with (or no­tice in your daily life af­ter read­ing the post).

If you know me per­son­ally, I’m also happy to share more ex­am­ples of spe­cific mu­tual ac­quain­tances who are no­tice­ably good or bad at mak­ing them­selves big or small. I think those would be be difficult and po­ten­tially pri­vacy-in­vad­ing to try to de­scribe to strangers, though, so I’m not in­clud­ing them here.

That’s all I have for now.

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LOL j/​k, there are also these *~op­tional horse­man­ship notes~* (which I could rant on about for pages but which you should feel free to skip):

[1] For the record, the style of horse­man­ship I like is pretty niche; you should not ex­pect most peo­ple who work with horses to have heard the phrase “make your­self small” or to agree with me about what good horse train­ing looks like.

[2] The horse­man­ship clips above are of Buck Bran­na­man, a trainer I highly re­spect. There’s a lot of skill and sub­tlety to what he’s do­ing in each clip (which I’d love to dis­cuss with any­one in­ter­ested), so I’d sug­gest not draw­ing strong con­clu­sions about his meth­ods based just on these short videos. If you’re re­ally in­ter­ested, I recom­mend this doc­u­men­tary about him, which I highly en­joyed but which might make less sense if you have less con­text on train­ing horses.

[3] If you’re con­fused and/​or cu­ri­ous about what Buck is do­ing in the video with the trou­bled mare: very roughly speak­ing, he’s 1) mak­ing him­self big enough that the mare pays at­ten­tion to him (which—do you see it? - is much less big than he needed to be with the stal­lion, be­cause she’s not nearly as ag­gres­sive/​oblivi­ous); 2) show­ing her that if she’s pay­ing at­ten­tion to him, noth­ing bad will hap­pen, and she can re­lax; 3) mak­ing him­self small to al­low her to ap­proach him while in that re­laxed and at­ten­tive state.

[4] I origi­nally learned about the idea of mak­ing your­self big or small from The Birdie Book, by Dr. Deb Ben­nett. (The book is named for one of Ben­nett’s key ideas, which is that work­ing with the horse’s at­ten­tion/​fo­cus—which she nick­names its “birdie”—is a key part of un­der­stand­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with horses.) I’m copy­ing here a long pas­sage from the book about get­ting small—feel free to skip, but I thought it might add some helpful color.

One of the most mov­ing things I ever wit­nessed in horse­man­ship was watch­ing Harry Whit­ney help a fright­ened wean­ling filly. She had come from a breed­ing farm whose op­er­a­tors cyn­i­cally demon­strate to clients their horses’ “brilli­ance” and “fire” by fright­en­ing them un­til they re­treat with rol­ling eyes, trem­bling limbs and ter­rified sweat­ing, to the back cor­ner of a large stall. The filly’s new owner, a woman from Ari­zona, very wisely brought her to us at a nearby ranch in Cal­ifor­nia, for she knew that ask­ing this an­i­mal to make the fif­teen-hour trailer trip south in such a stressed and ter­rified state would likely kill her.
The mo­ment Harry en­tered the pen where the filly had been placed, she be­gan des­per­ate at­tempts to flee. The pen, which was much too high for her to jump out of, was en­closed by strong wire net­ting. This was for­tu­nate for it did not per­mit her to in­jure her­self, which she would most cer­tainly have done oth­er­wise. As it was, she crashed into and bounced off of it once and then, in blind ter­ror, ran straight at Harry, half knock­ing him down.
Harry’s re­sponse was to re­treat, very slowly, as far as he could get from her while she did like­wise with re­spect to him. Phys­i­cally as well as en­er­get­i­cally, he made him­self as small as pos­si­ble. His flag (Harry’s is made out of a col­lapsi­ble fish­ing rod), re­mained stowed in his high-topped boots, as far out of sight as pos­si­ble.
Then, from a po­si­tion squat­ting close to the ground in one cor­ner of the en­clo­sure, Harry be­gan to help the filly make some changes. Every time she would glance out of the pen, Harry would reach down to his boot and just barely crin­kle the flag. The first time he did this, the filly stared at him, the whites of her eyes show­ing, her feet frozen to the ground, her tense and trem­bling body lean­ing stiffly away. As soon as she rol­led her eyes to­ward him, Harry would stop the crin­kling sound and re­sume wait­ing quietly. Those of us who stood watch­ing hardly dared to breathe.
Our ap­pre­hen­sion, how­ever, proved un­nec­es­sary. As she spent more time re­gard­ing Harry, she be­gan to re­lax. Soon she could stand still, re­laxed, when Harry stood up com­pletely straight. In an­other few min­utes, he could take a step to­ward her—and then re­ward her for not flee­ing by step­ping away from her again. In half an hour, she was able to stretch her neck out to sniff his out­stretched hand. A few min­utes af­ter that, Harry was pet­ting her muz­zle and her fore­head. She found out it wasn’t so bad. In fact, she liked it.
The sec­ond day, Harry re­peated the first les­sons and in a few min­utes the filly was able to per­mit Harry to place the halter around her muz­zle, and then buckle it on her head. In the same way, he then taught her to lead: a lit­tle pres­sure from the rope, let her feel of it, let her figure out how to re­lieve the pres­sure by step­ping up, then re­lease even more slack to her. After each bout, the filly worked her jaws as she chewed things over in her mind.
On the sec­ond day, the filly had two ses­sions with Harry, one in the morn­ing and one in the af­ter­noon, each of about 30 min­utes’ du­ra­tion. By the end of the sec­ond les­son that day, the filly was al­low­ing Harry to touch her all over, pick up all four feet, and lead her any­where in her en­clo­sure, which in­cluded a stall plus a run. She could fol­low Harry in and out of the door, step­ping dain­tily over the thresh­hold con­nect­ing the stall to the run.
On the morn­ing of the third day, Harry led her out of the stall. They walked all over the farm. If she showed in­di­ca­tions that she might be get­ting “lost,” Harry would crin­kle his flag, or merely reach out to touch her. With this re­minder of where her teacher was, she could re­lax again. It was clear that she wanted to be with Harry more than she wanted to be any­where else. By the same in­ter­nal pro­cess that un­der­lies all af­fec­tion—or if you like by the same mir­a­cle—he had be­come her trusted friend. He led her in and out of the owner’s horse trailer, up and down the ramp, let­ting her find out all about it, and es­pe­cially that it wasn’t go­ing to hurt her.
Us­ing his hu­man pow­ers of pre-plan­ning and fore­sight, Harry never got this filly into trou­ble, never came close to break­ing her thread. This al­lowed her to be­gin to de­velop a much wider scale for ad­just­ment. Some peo­ple call this “equa­nim­ity,” “re­siliency,” or “in­ner calm.” Others call it “emo­tional ma­tu­rity.”
On the af­ter­noon of the third day, Harry handed the lead line to the owner. She had already learned much by watch­ing the whole pro­cess for three days, and with a lit­tle sup­port from Harry, she found to her delight that she too could pet, halter, lead, and load her filly and han­dle her feet. We all re­al­ized that they were both go­ing to make it just fine to their new home in Ari­zona.
When I ex­pressed my ad­mira­tion to Harry later in pri­vate, he said, “my biggest worry was that I might not be able to make my­self small enough.”