The Art of Change Skills for Life

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Can You Read Too Much Into Facial Expressions?

April 6, 2009 Media Persuasion 1

I’m all about authentic connection and principled persuasion.  And I pay attention to messages that people share and send about the meaning of communication and the response that it gets.  So it was with great interest that I read what my friend and colleague Kare Anderson recently posted on her blog regarding facial expressions and gestures and their role in communication.  It’s an interesting read and I highly recommend it to you.  

Turns out that Kare knows the person who did the research and does the consulting for the new TV show ‘Lie To Me,’ in which the Lightman Institute sends people out to crime scenes and they read facial expressions and body language to determine who dunnit.  

His name is Paul Ekman, and he achieved his expertise in reading faces by exploring his own face, muscle by muscle, for over a year.  The show uses the ‘Guilty Knowledge’ technique to detect lying.  You can test your own ability to ‘read’ facial expressions here.

On her blog, she wrote:
How well do you anticipate another person’s discomfort before that person freezes up and becomes paralyzed, withdrawn or even destructive in a situation? 

Here’s some early warning signs of increased emotional intensity. Look out for them in yourself and others.    
  • Sweating:  Might indicate an increase in some emotional feeling.
  • Blinking more:  Might indicate an increase in some emotional feeling.
  • Dilated pupils:  Often indicates arousal or fear.
  • Blushing:  Might signal embarrassment, shame, anger, or guilt.
  • Talking louder and faster:  Usually signals anger, fear, or other excitement.
  • Talking slower and softer:  Might signal sadness or boredom.
  • Body gesturing:  Signals a negative emotion, usually fear or anger.
  • Breathing fast and shallow:  Indicates the presence of emotion.

There’s a lot more in the post that I found helpful and directive.  But I do take issue with the idea of mere mortals (those not highly trained in reading micro-expressions) reading too much into things like sweating, blushing and the like.  I tend to call that ‘hallucinating freely.’  I’ll have more to say in my next two posts on this subject. 

But here’s my bottom line.  I’ve thought for a very long time that body language generalizations aren’t all that valid because they take too little into account. I’ve known some good liars and bad in my day, and I don’t believe these ‘reading’ methods actually work, unless you are as knowledgeable and experienced as Dr. Ekman is,  for anything except the most rudimentary and obvious emotions…happy, mad, sad, glad, contempt and disgust.  

Develop a modicum of empathy and you can read someone’s mood to a small degree, if they’re congruent and expressive.  Take too much for granted and you may miss the mark.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with this.  Until next time,

Be well,
Rick

 

 

One Response

  1. Chris Witt says:

    Rick,

    I’m with you on this. I don’t like reducing body language to a this = that equation. Folded arms = defensiveness, for example. Body language is a gestalt with lots of pieces (facial and eye variations, gestures, posture, breathing, pacing, etc.) adding up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

    When I’m working with a client on a speech, the best I can do is offer my observations and intuitions and ask for their thoughts. “When you’re talking about point a, it seems to me that you’re less confident than at other times in your speech. Is that so? If so, why?”

    I’m always surprised by what people say in response. Instead of telling them that they should look more confident and that they can do so by standing or gesturing in a certain way, it gives them options. Maybe they need to change what they’re saying so it better reflects what they truly believe… Maybe a lot of things.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for raising the question.

    Chris

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