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What Does Your Face Say That Words Don't?

04 December 2015

To connect with others during conversation, we need to be focused on their response to what we’re saying as well as our message. When we are tuned in to physical responses, we’re better able to respond with relevance.When your listener’s facial expression shifts to something that seems less than positive, how do you know if it’s disapproval, disinterest or discomfort? Maybe your listener doesn't understand what’s being said, has an opposing viewpoint or perhaps you may be observing their “thinking face”.

According to Matthew MacDonald in his book, Your Brain: the missing manual, men and women experience the same amount of emotion, but women tend to show it more, suggesting women are more likely to have more expressive facial gestures - the good and the bad.

Situations only take on the meaning we give them, so what we make of “non positive” facial expressions, is a reflection of our internal judgement.

As a young girl growing up, I regularly observed a shift in the expression on my mothers face. When she was contemplating, concentrating or giving due consideration to anything, deep furrows would appear between her brows and across her forehead. At the time, I made this expression mean I was being disapproved of, whether her gaze was directed at me or the ironing she was focused on. It wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate the expression accompanying acts of concentration was her “thinking face” and not a look of disapproval (okay, maybe occasionally).

Whether we’ve grown up feeling we’re not good enough or we’re experience this in our current environment, the impact on confidence and self esteem can be damaging. Negative emotions are contagious, so when we perceive a look of judgement, we react with our own negative micro-expressions, which the other person picks up on and a vibe of low-trust is formed from a feedback loop of micro-expressions.

Charisma expert Olivia Fox Cabane, describes expressions and micro-expressions, as reflections of how we are experiencing ourselves in the moment. This means the expressions on the face of your listener may not be what you think they are. They can be unrelated to what we’re saying or reactions to internal judgement, for example: a side conversation about their own competence, an unrelated thought about what they’re having for dinner or the email they forgot to send (of course there will be exceptions to this).

The point is, what we think we see reflected in another person's facial expression, has more to do with how they’re experiencing that moment than how they’re seeing us. To interpret this as personal judgement, is making it about us.

Let’s flip the learning here. When we’re the listener, what’s our face revealing about us? Are we fully tuned into what’s being said or are we having side conversations in our head? Being present is the first step towards having presence.

The next time you are speaking with someone and they have their “thinking face” showing, smile and have empathy - they’re probably giving themselves a tough time.

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