Whether it’s a parent, or a boss or even your significant other, you probably have someone in your life who is frustratingly hard to read. It can be a struggle to navigate a conversation when you don’t know how the other person is feeling, and anxiety-inducing when you don’t know where you stand afterward.
If you want to know how someone’s really feeling, it might be best to use your ears, rather than your eyes. New research suggests that visual cues we use to help us read people might actually be misleading us.
We often inaccurately perceive others’ emotions, found researcher Michael Kraus of Yale University’s School of Management. A lot of this inaccuracy stems from our tendency to rely on facial expression—and a combination of tone of voice and facial expression—to see into the other person’s emotions.
How to fix it? Simple: Learn to listen carefully.
To figure out our strongest conversation tools, Kraus did five experiments with more than 1,800 participants. In each experiment, folks were asked to interact with someone or watched an interaction between two other people. Some participants were allowed only to listen and not look; some looked but couldn’t listen; and some looked and listened.
Still others listened to a computerized voice reading a transcript of a conversation between two women teasing each other. This removed all the human emotion from the words that were said during the interaction.
You might think that people who looked and listened would have the upper hand in this situation. After all, why wouldn’t you want to use all the clues at your disposal—both audio and visual—to figure out what’s going on in the head of your conversation partner?
But Kraus found that the people who were only allowed to listen were able to more accurately identify the emotions of their partner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who listened to the robo voice had the hardest time identifying emotions. They had the worst accuracy of anyone.
There are two things at play that make listening alone a better way to identify emotions than looking and listening, Kraus thinks.
For one thing, most adult humans have a lot of practice masking their true emotions with facial expressions. If you’re in the working world, this is a skill it behooves you to learn, for better or for worse, whether to interact professionally with customers, clients, coworkers or bosses.
On top of that, more information isn’t always helpful. Your brain can only take in so much information at once. If you’re engaging in two complex tasks—interpreting facial expressions and tone of voice—you’re going to do worse at both than if you only had to focus on one at a time. Following this logic, couples in long-distance relationships that often talk on the phone might be more in touch emotionally than ones that aren’t.
Interestingly, a lot of previous research about emotional recognition has centered around facial expressions alone.
“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,” Kraus said in an interview with the American Psychological Association.
What can we learn from this?
“Listening matters,” Kraus said. “Actually considering what people are saying and the ways in which they say it can, I believe, lead to improved understanding of others at work or in your personal relationships.”
Want to take your conversation skills to the next level? Consider these simple tips.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.