Being able to accurately discern someone’s emotional state is an essential conflict resolution skill. But even with both good will and skill, we have a fair chance of guessing wrong. Recent research suggests that when it comes to accurately figuring out what someone else is feeling, there’s one thing we can do that boosts our ability to get it right.
Years ago, when I was a college vice president, I worked with another VP who exhibited an odd behavior during difficult president’s cabinet conversations.
Bruce was the newest member of the president’s cabinet and his unusual behavior showed up almost right away.
When the cabinet was grappling with something serious or difficult, we’d all sit with our chairs pulled up to the conference table. As others talked, we’d look at them and at each other, gauging reactions as we listened.
Bruce sat with his chair pushed considerably back from the table. He didn’t sit up. He sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped loosely. His head hung down, his eyes on the floor. Occasionally he’d straighten up, look at us, and say something pithy or insightful. Then he’d resume his elbows-on-the-knees-and-head-down position.
One day I asked him, “Why do you sit like that?”
He smiled. “I listen better like that.”
Why it matters
Accurately reading someone else’s emotional state helps us resolve conflict better.
When we’re mediating, formally or informally, noticing a growing anger helps us take steps to address it before it sweeps them away. Recognizing fear helps us make sure no one feels inadvertently coerced into an agreement. Realizing someone is distressed allows us the opportunity to attend to their stress and anxiety.
When we’re party to the difficult conversation, accurately decoding what our conversation partner is feeling helps make the right adjustments in our words, attitude, and approach. We do that to make sure they want to — and can — stay in conversation with us. By doing so, we serve not just them, but also ourselves.
So anything we can do to increase our ability to “read the room” and the individuals in it, makes our conflict resolution job more effective.
Less is more
My colleague Bruce, it turns out, was onto something. By removing visual cues while he listened, he actually listened and understood better. He found it less distracting to watch the floor than to watch everyone at the table, and it helped him hear people more clearly.
Last fall, research published by the American Psychological Association reminded me instantly of Bruce. The study concluded that when we rely on a combination of facial and vocal cues, we may actually read others’ emotions and intentions less accurately than when we rely on vocal cues alone.
In a series of five experiments, research subjects interacted with others or observed the interactions of others. Sometimes they could listen and observe, sometimes they could observe without listening, and sometimes they could listen without observing. In each experiment, they were then asked to estimate others’ emotions along dimensions such as joy, fear, sadness, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, hostility, and contempt.
In all five experiments the individuals who listened without observing had, on average, higher accuracy in estimating the emotional state of others.
Said the study,
“Social and biological sciences have demonstrated both the profound desire of individuals to connect with others…and the array of skills people possess to accurately discern other’s emotions and intentions. And yet, in the presence of both will and skill to communicate, people often inaccurately perceive others’ emotions. In the present research we examined the possibility that less is more—that voice-only communication, even though it involves only one of the modalities of emotion expression, will significantly improve empathic accuracy over communication across multiple senses.”
Researcher Michael Kraus later said,
“Many tests of emotional intelligence rely on accurate perceptions of faces. What we find here is that perhaps people are paying too much attention to the face — the voice might have much of the content necessary to perceive others’ internal states accurately.”
Close your eyes
Of course, you don’t have to sit like my former colleague Bruce in order to listen deeply without the distraction of facial and body cues.
You can close your eyes. You can look thoughtfully up toward the ceiling. You can look at the tree outside the window.
If you’re worried that those choices will make you seem disinterested or disengaged, a brief explanation can help: “You may notice my eyes closed occasionally. I’m not sleeping! I find that closing them helps me listen better to what you’re saying.”