Managing people

Facial expressions and nonverbal communication

We spoke to Alan Stevens, Profiling and Communications Specialist, about how to harness the power of reading people’s faces for better business relationships and outcomes.

Emotions can play a huge role in negotiations, and emotions are played out on our face. We can choose our words, the tone of our voice and body language. Yet apparently, the things we don't actually say can convey volumes of information.

What we really think and feel is mirrored in our facial micro expressions. Facial expressions in communication can help determine if we trust or believe what they are saying, and vice versa.

Hi Alan, how do facial expressions affect communication?

The truth is always in the non-verbals – in gestures and facial expressions in communication. I’m sure you have experienced listening to someone at one time or another, where everything they said sounded fine but you felt something was wrong. You would have unconsciously recognised the words didn’t match their expressions and body language.

So you can even say that the micro expressions are a language all of their own. And a language that’s far more truthful than the words we speak. Words only make up 7% of the communication. Everything else is the truth.

What do these facial micro expressions look like? Are they universal?

Micro expressions are universal. It doesn’t matter if you were born and live in a capital city, an isolated tribal village or have even been blind from birth, you will show the same expression when you feel the corresponding emotion. 

There are seven expressions. Anger, disgust, contempt, happiness, sadness, fear and surprise. Anger is the response to a perceived injustice and disgust appears when something is offensive. An immoral action will elicit contempt. Happiness and sadness are pretty obvious. Surprise is caused by a sudden or novel object while fear is caused by a threat to physical or psychological wellbeing. In that 1/5th of a second down to 1/25th of a second, volumes are spoken. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  

Can we control or fake micro expressions?

We are emotional beings, and, as such, when something is said or happens, we respond unconsciously. This is when the micro expression appears. They are our response to the situation. Then our conscious mind takes over and the expression disappears. 

That’s why it’s called a micro expression. They can be controlled to a degree, but it’s extremely hard. You have to really focus on controlling them. It means you have to stay conscious of everything around you. But if you are trying to do that, your body language will give you away, and vice versa. There is far too much going on for our conscious mind to process and control. We are emotional beings and our emotions will always win out.

Can certain people be more intuitive about reading facial expressions than others?

When we were children, most of us recognised the expressions intuitively. How often do you see children push their parents to the edge but not over the edge? As we get older we have more distractions and things happening in our lives. So, like any muscle we don’t exercise, the muscle atrophies and so does our conscious ability to see the expressions. In my courses, I help people to understand what it is that they think they are seeing.

Anyone who puts more focus into listening to the words, like police, judges, forensic psychologists, are more likely to miss the expressions.

That’s why, when hiring, I recommend the interview team has people who focus on the what’s said and what they are asking, while others focus on what they see.

People with Asperger Syndrome are at a disadvantage in that they have difficulty recognising emotions, so they struggle with recognising expressions.

How essential are micro expressions to delivering genuine compassion and empathy?

Because we unconsciously pick them up, even though we may not consciously recognise them, others will know at a gut level if you are genuine.

How important in business is the ability to read facial expressions correctly?

They are the cues that tell you what the other person is feeling. For instance, if you miss them, you can miss the signals when the client is ready to buy. You end up talking yourself in and right back out of a sale.

You may think you’ve explained yourself to your employees but you’ve missed that they didn’t get it, weren’t listening or just decided to ignore you.

Without the ability to read micro expressions, you miss so much information and you put yourself at a huge disadvantage.

Is there anything else you would like to share on this fascinating and important subject?

Micro expressions are only part of the process of reading people. Understanding their personality first gives you a wealth of knowledge. When you know how they prefer to take in and process information, and know how they are likely to behave, you have far better knowledge on how to speak to them. 

Then using language that matches their style, body language and micro expressions take on a greater meaning. What is the best way to read their personalities fast? Well, that’s a story for another article.

9 tips for reading people’s faces effectively

1. Get a good coach to teach you how to read both expressions and body language

As I’ve discovered, there are so many misnomers around what different body language signals really mean, and even fewer coaches who can teach micro expressions. It’s why I became a coach. 

The more you understand a person, especially their personality, the easier it makes reading the non-verbals. Shifts in their emotions become more obvious.

2. Look for congruency in micro expressions

Timing is important. Micro expressions have to appear at the very moment the event happens. The slightest delay and they are no longer congruent. Someone can try and fake an expression, but it won’t be in that moment between the unconscious response and the point the conscious mind takes over.

3. Consider the context

Are the micro expressions what you expect, or are they out of context? For instance, you tell someone that their friend has just been fired and you get a flash of a smile. If they were friends, you’d expect sadness.

4. Look for cues in clusters and never draw a conclusion from one cue on its own

The first indicator highlights something might be out of place. Ask further questions and see what expressions follow as the situation or discussion continues.

5. Don’t confuse someone’s nervousness for signs of deception

Monitor the shift in their confidence as the conversation progresses. People who believe they are good liars are less likely to show deception.

6. Use open, probing and closed questions to uncover the truth

The style and format of questioning is very important. When you ask open questions, the person will only tell you what they want to tell you. Use this time to benchmark their emotions.

7. Watch for a shift in the emotions

When you ask probing questions – the why, what, when, who and how – watch for the shift in their emotions. This is where they will reluctantly tell you more as they try harder to conceal the truth. This is where they begin to become uncomfortable.

The yes and no questions are where you’ll see the leaking of micro expressions.

8. Keep an open mind

Don’t let others bias your objectivity.

9. Always test and retest what you think you’ve seen

Take your questioning deeper to uncover more and confirm what you think you’ve seen.

Alan Stevens is an International Profile and Communications Specialist. Alan is regularly featured on national TV, radio and in the press, profiling the likes of our leading politicians, TV and sports stars as well as Britain’s Royalty. Alan is an Amazon #1 Best Selling Author, a coach and trainer, and has been referred to as the leading authority on reading people, globally by the UK Guardian.

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