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What are you really saying?

All good investigators, communicators, and poker players have at least one thing in common: They’ve learned to read faces. It helps them solve crime, shape opinion, and win money.

Whether you’re greeting a customer, hosting a party, briefing your staff, or simply having a conversation with an employee, spouse, or friend, the message on your face means as much as the words from your mouth. Psychologists have shown that accurate communication can be up to ninety percent dependent upon non-verbal cues—body language and facial expression—while as little as ten percent of the message is from the actual words.

Imagine being in total isolation and shown the words: I want you. The message is confusing until you hear and see the speaker. Is it a cop, your lover, your friend, or your enemy? Is the voice soft, loud, tender, or hesitating? Most importantly, would it help to see the speaker’s eyes, mouth, and expression on their face? Of course it would. The example illustrates two things: (1) non-verbal signals are vital to clear communication, and (2) texting or email is great for staying in touch but no substitute for a face to face meeting.

Do some conversations make you uneasy? Have you had a gut feeling you don’t understand? And finally, can you tell when the look on your face does not match your words.

If you answered yes even once, I recommend two books: Blink written in 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell, and Unmasking the Face by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen. The first is entertaining but less instructive. The second is a how-to-read-faces manual written by world renowned experts. With illustrated pictures of faces, it explains what your face tells others, and what it tries to hide.

The authors identified forty-three distinct muscle movements our face can make. They catalogued them to form several hundred facial-muscle combinations and the message displayed by each. The shocker is that these face messages reveal the truth, and we send them out every second without much awareness. Once your face says something, it’s out there and there is no way to take it back. We can always apologize for hurtful or inaccurate words, but we never say, “I’m sorry my face just lied to you.”  We’d know it as an insincere apology since usually the face does not lie.

Most face messages can be read. The common ones are surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and deceit. We read them when the signals appear. For example, surprise registers as raised, curved eyebrows, wide-open eyes, and a dropped jaw with relaxed lips. If you don’t see this reaction when you tell your youngest associate she won employee of the year, it probably means she already knew. Someone told her. And if you see the reaction too late, a fraction of a second after you announced the news, it probably means that she wants you to believe she really is surprised.  In either case, her face didn’t properly match the occasion, she likely feels a bit awkward, and her gushing “thank you” lacks authenticity.

The good news here is because you read her face you created a teaching moment. You can tell her that the look on her face made you suspect she already knew. Tell her it is okay; that you understand.  Most importantly, you can explain that she shouldn’t feel compelled to make it look like a surprise just for your benefit. Explain that all it did was cloud the issue which cripples clear communication.

We’ve been learning to pick up on facial displays since babyhood, but we’re still not good at it. Untrained people are accurate about fifty percent of the time. Stroke victims and the deaf are more accurate. Their reduced ability to carry on a conversation makes them sensitive to subtle changes in people’s faces. Likewise, people from abusive homes or who work in dangerous careers or who occupy war zones, are often better face readers because it is critical that they sense what’s coming next—before it is too late.

Most of us don’t manage our faces well. Messages or feelings often flow from our face, despite efforts to control them. In their chapter on facial deceit, Ekman and Friesen say our body-language and face reflect our true emotions, which often contradict our words. Because we get so much practice talking, it is much easier to communicate—and mislead— with our words than with our face. The boss or politician can read from a prepared statement, the spouse can rehearse the explanation to their partner, and the sixteen year-old can practice explaining how the front bumper detached itself. They can rehearse the words, but their face gives them away. 

What might reveal deceit? It usually has to do with timing. Suppose you ask an interviewee if he’s ever been charged with a felony. Before he can neutralize his face, and in the split second it took him to answer “no”, his upper eyelids rise, the lower ones tense up, and his lips tighten and draw back. Did you catch it? It was a fear response. Fear of getting caught in a lie. The fear message flashed on his face before he could neutralize it. You can’t describe all you saw, but your gut says he’s lying.

But this is not about deceit. It is about honest communication. When your customers, spouse, or friends notice discrepancies between what you say and how you look they drift away because something—they may not know what— is not right. Make sure your words and face always say the same thing, and live well between your ears.