Grown ups learn to conceal their emotions, in the workplace, in social settings, and at home. There are all sorts of reasons to do so, some good, some bad, but it’s useful to be able to detect concealed emotions underneath a bland exterior whether it’s your boss holding back on a job performance issue or a family member avoiding a fight. So how do you do it?
Paul Ekman made his life’s work the effort to be able to spot concealed emotions. His book Telling Lies is a classic in the field. It turns out to be very difficult to detect lies reliably, but Paul did improve the odds a little with training that he developed for the CIA and the FBI. And along the way, he discovered something fascinating: when we’re concealing a strong emotion, we almost always let it out in “micro-expressions,” sudden leakages of the emotion that are expressed in our faces, unbeknownst to ourselves – and mostly to the people around us, for very brief flashes of time – as little as a 24th of a second.
The good news is that you can train yourself to spot these micro-expressions. Ekman himself offers training from his website, or you can train yourself by studying facial expressions and identifying the basic ones using simple pictures which you look at for shorter and shorter periods of time.
With a few weeks of work, you can train yourself to notice the flashes of anger, or disgust, or surprise, or happiness – whatever the emotion is. We’re unconsciously aware of micro-expressions anyway; the practice allows you to become consciously aware of them.
And here’s another way to get to the same end result – reading concealed emotions. Practice asking your unconscious what it’s seeing. That may sound complicated, but it’s not. Simply pose the question to yourself, when you’re in someone’s company and you want to know how he or she is feeling. Make it a positive statement: i. e. something like “Is this person angry?” or “Is this person happy?” and then wait for your “gut” to give you the answer. If you practice waiting for your unconscious to speak to you, it will. Your unconscious already knows the answer; it’s just a matter of tapping into it. Most humans are incredibly quick and able when it comes to reading other people’s emotions – but only at the unconscious level. At the conscious level, all kinds of other thoughts get in the way. It takes practice, and a quiet conscious mind, to hear your unconscious. But the effort will repay you with enormously increased emotional intelligence.