How to Be a Mind Reader: The Art of Deciphering Body Language

Learning how to accurately interpret facial expressions isn't easy, but it can make you a more effective leader.

Tue, April 10, 2007

CIO — Eric Goldfarb knows that tuning into body language and facial expressions can indicate the thoughts and feelings that remain unspoken. He also knows how difficult those nonverbal cues can be to interpret. During a budget meeting with a direct report while working for Global Knowledge, Goldfarb noticed that his vice president kept toying with her necklace. He thought this mannerism was an indication of her discomfort with the financial target he was proposing. He also noticed her eyes and thought they expressed worry over the budget target. He repeatedly asked her during the meeting if she thought she could meet the budget, and even though she consistently answered yes, Goldfarb didn't believe her. So he scheduled a follow-up meeting with her to dig deeper. She ended up meeting the target without a problem, and Goldfarb realized that he wasted his and her precious time by scheduling the follow-up meeting and by dragging out the first one with repetitive questions. What could Goldfarb have done differently to more accurately size up his vice president?

Mind Test
Take a short, interactive quiz to see how adept you are at reading facial expressions.
[For further training in microexpressions and other aspects of facial recognition, please visit Paul Ekman's Website.]

Goldfarb, now the CIO of auditing firm PRG-Schultz International, was astute to tune into her body language and facial expressions. However, because body language can be misleading and because facial expressions can be hard to read if you're not practiced at it, Goldfarb needed to more pointedly probe his direct report. Instead of continually asking her, "Are you comfortable?" he might have said, "It's really important for me to have your buy-in on this target. I don't mean to pry but I just want to know if the discomfort you appear to be showing is a result of this budget target or something else. If it's the target, we can work something out." Had Goldfarb taken this tack, he wouldn't have had to worry that his incessant questioning sent a message to this individual—one of his key lieutenants—that he didn't trust her, or that he temporarily lost some credibility in her eyes.

Accurately interpreting the meanings of nonverbal communications, especially facial expressions, can make CIOs more effective leaders and managers, says Paul Ekman, noted psychologist and author of Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. Reading facial expressions is a particularly useful skill for business executives because, so often in business settings, people don't say what they really think. If CIOs could recognize how different emotions manifest themselves on the face, they'd be able to discern much more quickly, for example, when an individual is starting to get angry. They'd also be able to identify when people are trying to conceal their emotions—such as fear, contempt, disgust or surprise. This knowledge and ability can make CIOs more aware of unspoken political tensions in board or executive committee meetings. It also better equips them to handle sensitive staffing situations such as performance reviews. Ekman points to research indicating that managers who seem responsive to the unspoken emotions of their staffs are more successful in the workplace than managers who don't.

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