Reading your client through facial ‘micro-expressions’

Small, quick expressions offer a glimpse into what your listener really feels, even if he or she is trying to keep a poker face.


Say you’re pitching your great, one-of-a-kind idea to a client. Don’t you wish you could read minds? You need not be a cape-wearing superhero to do it. You just need to be a master in nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is complex and can be daunting. Without understanding a person’s normal “baseline” nonverbal communication, very little can be deduced about his or her state of mind. Fortunately, years of study from researchers like Paul Ekman have found seven universal micro-expressions that offer a window into someone’s emotional responses. A micro-expression is a subtle facial muscle movement associated with an emotion. Seven emotions have their own specific micro-expressions. These micro-expressions are the same for someone living in New York City, the Midwest, Tanzania, or anywhere else. These micro-expressions last less than a half-second, thus making them difficult to assess, but with knowledge and practice, you could have special insight into the veiled emotions of your listener. We’ll begin with the emotion we hope to see: happiness. Most true micro-expressions are symmetrical, thus, you can see happiness when both sides of your listener’s lips turn up at the same speed and distance. If I give three options, and I notice my client’s smile on the second option, I know what direction he/she is leaning. Additionally, you can spot a genuine smile when the eyelids contract, and abnormal wrinkles form around the eye. During a micro-expression, you may not see such a distinguishable smile. Contempt, the second universal micro-expression, is the only asymmetric expression. If my listener feels superior, I may see one side of his/her mouth rise. Most people try to hide this contempt-ridden expression with a fake smile. Look for either side of the mouth to rise quicker, or higher than the other side, as well as one side will lower more slowly. Researcher John Gottman predicted whether couples would be divorced in four years by watching for this micro-expression in a five-minute, soundless conversation between the spouses. His accuracy rate was 90 percent. The third micro-expression, disgust, is easy to spot. You will see wrinkles around the nose of your listener, formed by the upper lip slightly rising. Picture yourself smelling rotten cheese. Tread cautiously if your listener shows this expression; it may be a good signal to change the topic. Anger is expressed with the upper and lower eyelids tightening, along with lowered eyebrows. You might also see the listener’s lips pressed together. Be careful, because lowered eyebrows and tightened eyelids could be a sign of focus or confusion, and pressed-together lips could be a sign of sadness. Try using context clues to find the true emotion. One of the most reliable micro-expressions is sadness, because it’s hard to fake. You can see sadness when the inner corners of the person’s eyebrows raise, as well as both lip corners pull down. Most people are not able to fake downward lip corners without raising their chin. A genuine frown will not include a raised chin. Along with anger, pressed lips may also be a sign of sadness. The last two emotions have a similar expression. Fear is shown by the upper eyelids being raised high, and the eyebrows raised and drawn together, causing tension in the forehead. Many people try to hide fear with a fake smile; you already know how to spot a fake smile. Lastly, surprise is apparent when the upper eyelids and eyebrows are raised for a short amount of time. Whereas eyelids and eyebrows will rise for a longer period for fear, surprise is a short-term emotion.

Because micro-expressions last less a half-second, they can be difficult to spot. Here are a few tips to begin your mastery of micro-expression detection:

• Once you have asked an important question, look for your listener’s first facial expression. People must first interpret your question before speaking; just prior to their verbal response is the ideal moment to look for micro-expressions. • Keep in mind the context of the situation, and compare your listener’s expression against their normal behavior. Does your client seem to always have his/her eyebrows down? If so, it may be more difficult to spot genuine anger. It is best to look for combinations of micro-expressions. For example, if you see lowered eyebrows, tightened eyelids, and pressed together lips, you can be more confident your listener feels angry. • If you need more time remembering what an expression means, repeat the movement you see on yourself. This will help you put a definition behind a micro-expression.

Dustin York is an assistant professor at Maryville University.

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