By | Mark Tyrrell.
1) Look out for ‘micro expressions’
Sometimes the mask slips. For the merest snatch of time, you’ll see a true expression; what they are really thinking flashes out at you. The truth has a way of slipping out, but you need to look out for these fleeting ‘micro expressions’. It’s easy to fake body language and paste an expression onto your face; and it’s also easy to be taken in. But if something doesn’t ‘feel right’, look for micro expressions which are almost, but not quite, subliminal. Shooting stars don’t last long, but you know when you’ve seen one.
2) Look for partial expressions or fleeting full ones
Psychologist Paul Ekman describes the micro expressions, “very fast and intense expressions of concealed emotion” – can take two forms.
• A full but so fast as to be (almost?) missed expression, such as the waiter who serves you up a 1/15th of a second look of utter contempt when you ask for ketchup with the chef’s finest creation. This is a complete expression, but so fast you might miss it as it melts back into the professional smile.
• Partial micro expressions contained in only part of the face. These partial ‘tells’ may last longer than full expressions, but only show on parts of the face such as around the eyes or the mouth. A classic one might be eyes and eyebrows looking angry whilst mouth smiles.
3) Don’t assume
It’s important not to assume you know what you’re looking for, because we can so often think we’ve found what we haven’t. If you assume someone ‘must’ be angry, for example, then everything they say and do will seem like concealed anger to you.
Remember that we tend to see others through the lens of our prevailing emotion, so work to relax when watching people. Keep your mind nice and open.
4) Look for patterns
That cabin crewmember may have had an argument with her boyfriend before her shift and still be feeling angry about that as she serves you above the clouds. You don’t know. But if you notice that she seems to display a micro expression of contempt at a particular passenger every time he drunkenly yells for more Smirnoff, then that’s a pattern you’ve spotted.
Like the ‘don’t assume’ tip, looking for patterns helps you keep more objective when observing others.
5) Watch what people do
People will tell you all kinds of things about what they think and feel and perhaps most of the time you can trust that. But people kid you and themselves.
Look for ‘incongruence’, which means a seeming disconnect between a person’s words and their expressions and body language. For example, someone is telling you they really love someone, but every time they mention that person, they shake their head, that might be telling you something significant. The trick is not to assume you know for sure what that’s telling you until you have more information. Maybe they do love this person but feel this person doesn’t love them back – hence the headshake; maybe this something does make them happy but they fear losing it – hence the frown. We don’t know until we know. Practice watching talk shows on TV with the sound down and guess what the people are feeling when they are talking, then watch again with the sound up and see if their words match their apparent facial expressions.
6) Merge with people’s minds to feel what they feel
Genuine body language and facial expression reflect how we feel, but amazingly how we feel can be changed by adopting certain postures and facial expressions. Around 30 seconds of fake smiling can make you feel better.
It’s also been noted that when two people ‘see eye to eye’, they will unconsciously mirror one another’s facial expressions, rate and types of movement, and body posture. But how about if you are with someone, try adopting their body posture, facial expressions, and so forth; not just to build better rapport, but to see how adopting these expressions makes you feel, as a way of discovering how they might be feeling.
When someone tells you they are not worried or they are happy, try seeing for yourself whether their body and facial movements seem to reflect these feelings by adopting them yourself. Of course, this needs to be done subtly or they’ll notice.