How to Become an Emotional Detective: Methods Used to Uncover Basic Emotions
Detecting emotions in yourself and others is an important element of Emotional Intelligence. In my recent post, “10 Ways to Enhance Your Emotional Intelligence,” I offered a list of suggestions to help you tune in to your emotional landscape. In this post, I want to discuss two methods used to uncover basic emotions in others: interpreting facial expressions and reading body language.
An old professor of mine used to say, you cannot see the unconscious – it’s like the wind. You can detect unconscious emotions by their impact on others, just as you can tell which way the wind is blowing by examining the movement of the trees and clouds.
Each of the major emotions can be detected by observing a combination of facial and bodily expressions. Although some people no doubt have a greater aptitude for this skill than others, most of us can improve our ability to detect emotions in others with effort and practice.
Two Major Methods Used to Uncover Basic Emotions
People have dozens of different muscles devoted to facial expressions. By using them in different combinations, we communicate nuances of feeling. Consider, for example, the many different types of smiles there are, and how easily most people can tell a social smile from one of pure joy. That’s because a joyful smile involves both the mouth and the eyes, but while the mouth is under voluntary control, the eye muscles are not. When we force a smile, it looks fake because the widening mouth is not accompanied by changes in the eyes. The ability to produce a radiant smile on demand is one of the great assets of such highly paid actresses as Julia Roberts.
A slight curl of the lip will detract from the joyful quality of a smile, making it look sardonic or contemptuous. A slight droop in the corners of the mouth, on the other hand, will imbue a smile with a bittersweet, slightly sad, or mysterious quality (Think Mona Lisa!)
Even highly intelligent people misread faces, thereby misinterpreting the feelings of others. One young patient of mine, a boy who had been caught in a flagrant lie, came to see me together with his father. Although his father was clearly both hurt and embarrassed by his behavior, the son was unable to read the pain in his face. Once I showed him how to see it, however, he understood the hurt he had caused, became remorseful, and promised to be honest in the future.
Reading Body Language
Reading body language is another valuable skill. In fact, some studies show that people communicate more effectively through body language than through actual words. And many times, we’re not even aware that we’re reading these clues.
When someone is ashamed, for example, he may lower his head and hunch his shoulders, as though trying to look smaller. A gracious person, reading these cues, might then go easy on the person, even without any conscious thought. Reading her husband’s angry demeanor, a prudent wife might wait for another occasion to raise a contentious issue. Detecting a wife’s tense posture and clenched knuckles whenever he drives fast, a wise husband will slow down.
There are many books and websites that teach tactics necessary for reading facial and bodily expressions, but the main thing is this: pay attention. When you’re talking to someone, look at their eyes and lips, analyze how they’re sitting or leaning, notice if they’re fidgeting, etc. By practicing the art of observation, you will also probably become more aware of what you are communicating to others with your body language.
It is important to remember that the range of most human talents, including reading others, can probably be described as a bell-shaped curve. Talent is only part of the ability. Many of us can improve our ability to decipher body language and facial expressions with effort and practice.
For more information on the many facets to emotional intelligence, including perceiving emotions in yourself and others, check out my book, “The Emotional Revolution: Harnessing the Power of Your Emotions for a More Positive Life.”
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Wishing you Light and Transcendence.
- Psychology Today—Articles on Reading Body Language