Many of you might be unaware that your face is telling a story.
Our faces have many muscles and nerves (I’m going to say a gazillion because I am very scientific about these things), and they all work to convey subtle emotions and communicate feelings. Other people are reacting to these emotions in a subconscious way probably because of something called “mirror neurons” and how our brain picks up these signals in ways that we can barely understand. (I will save you from the scientific controversy about this topic. Suffice to say, we don’t know why this works but it seems to work.)
Great, so let’s all suppress our facial expressions and our emotions.
The problem is that when you suppress your emotions, they tend to squirt out sideways. That is that they will leave your body either through your body language, tone or voice or your face.
(See? Leaking all over the place.)
We tend to think of our emotions as something that can be compartmentalized into our mind and buried, never to be seen again. The trouble is that emotions are like water seeking the source, it will find a way out eventually. The easiest path is usually our faces, which are incredibly expressive and can silently tell a complicated story.
(Well, maybe not that complicated…)
Ah, but what is that story and how are other people reading it? Well, first we have to understand that our faces reveal a great deal about how we feel about a situation and the people we are with. A slight downturn of the mouth, a tight smile without the crinkling of the eyes, a subtle bow of the head and our eye contact can all transmit a feeling that we don’t intend.
(Like painful awkwardness)
Why is this a big deal?
Well for starters, you may be trying to be nice to someone who is really, really annoying you. You say “thank you” and “that’s great” and “so glad to see you” and you pat yourself on the back for being able to hide your feelings and be so generous.
(but the disdain just leaks out anyway…)
The trouble is that the other person won’t be able to necessarily know exactly what is going on. They will have a sense that something is not quite right. In a work environment, especially one where you are the leader/manager of a team, how you feel about that team will leak out. Seriously, they know.
Well, it has something to do with what Daniel Goleman calls the “open loop” of emotions. That is that, unlike our thoughts which are stuck in our heads and only affect us, our emotions have a tendency to permeate a room like perfume. According to Goleman’s research (and others), if you put two people in a room with different strong emotions and just make them sit next to each other for fifteen minutes, whichever emotion is the stronger one will infect the other. (Both will become anxious, sad, angry, joyful, etc…)
What can we do about it?
Well, for one thing we can stop suppressing the emotion. The most certain way to assure that we will leak emotions unconsciously is if we try to stuff them down somewhere deep inside ourselves. Not only does that not work in communication, I’m pretty convinced (and research seems to be bearing this out) that suppression of that kind can lead to some serious health problems. (Here’s one paper on that, if you are interested.)
(Unless you are Tom Cruise for whom suppressing emotions is the fountain of youth)
1. Be aware of your emotions
If you can start to recognize what you are feeling, you are less likely to have those emotions leak out inappropriately. Often just admitting to yourself that you are having an emotional experience (and we all are–all the time) will help to alleviate the stress of trying to stuff that emotion away.
If all we did was take a deep breath when we were gripped by a strong, negative emotion, we would be so much better off. The tension in our faces, our bodies and our voices would go away. The act of breathing is enough to energize and relax our muscles, release tension and disrupt negative thoughts. It is our very own reset button.
(Even a trained actor like Daniel Day Lewis uses this technique to calm himself.)
3. Stay open
This is probably the most challenging piece of the puzzle. The more that you recognize what your face is doing and what you are feeling, the easier it will be to relax those parts of you and stay open. The more open you are, the less likely you will send unwanted signals to the room. An open and relaxed face (and body) will tell the other person that you are present and that you are not judging them.
(Mandela was brilliant at doing this.)
4. Be direct
If staying open is challenging, then this one is just outright scary for most people. Fact is that when we are direct with people regarding what we are feeling in that moment, we are usually clearer and more persuasive.
For example, if someone comes to you with a question just as you are about to sit down to do some much needed work, you can diffuse the situation naming it. Say “I may come across short because I am feeling pressure about getting my work done” and the other person might decide to come back later or they might align with you in your feeling of pressure and ask a quick question. Either way, you have met them directly and clearly.
This also helps them realize that your reaction to them is more about your situation than it is about your character (or how you feel about them personally). The better we are at articulating what is going on for us in the moment, the less likely our intentions will be misunderstood.
And not being misunderstood is the key to better communication.
Follow these steps and let me know if you have any questions about “leaky faces” and how we might convey the wrong messages.