The link between emotions and behaviours

It’s not often I can point to a learning event and on reflection think to myself, but damn that changed my life. There have been two such occasions thus far. The first was attending a facilitation skills training course with Roffey Park. That course taught me a lot about group dynamics, about how I interact with them, and how much I enjoy group based solutions. The second was my MBTI Step I training. I left that training thinking I could rule the world (I still think this) armed with just this tool. It offered me an easy way to recognise behaviours in myself, in others and different ways I can use the tool to provide different ways of working.

This year, I attended a course called Emotional Skills and Competencies with DPG Plc. It was a three day training course, and I wrote about my immediate reflections after each day (Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3). Now some time has passed, and I’ve been able to reflect back on the course, I’m convinced that this training, or future forms of it, will form the cornerstone of what we know as emotional intelligence training. The training focused on helping to understand the work by Dr Paul Ekman. Readers of this blog will know I hold this guy in very high regard. His work and research has helped to identify seven universally recognisable emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, anger and contempt.

We learned how to recognise the ‘microexpressions’ that accompany each emotion on a person’s face. This was really interesting, and we got plenty of practice, as well as practising making the facial expressions ourselves. In line with this, we also spent time reflecting on what happens within us when we feel these specific emotions. This was a great form of self awareness. We learned that there is an emotional timeline we all go through. From the moment something triggers an emotion in us, and the moment we become aware of it, 1/25th of a second passes. Once we become aware, is the point at which we can start to think about how we deal with this emotion.

The other piece I’ve been reflecting heavily on is the research into body language. The hardest thing, and at the same time the most attractive thing, about body language is finding some universal truths that exist. Outside of the microexpressions we display on our faces, there are no other universal body language signs. There a lot, and I mean a lot of ‘experts’ in the field who would like us to believe that they have the answers to underlying motivations and desires based on a person’s body language. Unfortunately most are just not basing their work on research. They’re basing it on lay observations which most of us could make if we took the time to study it better. And, importantly, most are basing it solely on the context of the culture they are in.

I came across this excellent journal article by Dr Ekman (Emotional and Conversational Nonverbal Signals) which perfectly describes how we can understand body language. He explains there are three forms of body language we can look for: emblems, illustrators and manipulators.

Emblems are those body language signals which have specific cultural significance. For example, a thumbs up signal may be assumed to mean ordinarily ‘yes’, or ‘I’m good’, or ‘well done’. However, when deep sea diving it means that you need to go up to the surface. Even before you take the deep sea diving difference into account, you can see how the one signal can mean different things in everyday context.

Illustrators are those which help to support the verbal message. In most cases this is where we use our hands to be expressive in some way. For example, “I first stopped at the shop, then went to the car, then realised I forgot something.” While doing this someone may count off on their fingers in order to illustrate the number of times something occurred, or they may use their hands to indicate moving from one point to the other in a recurring fashion.

Manipulators are those where the person is using one part of the body to touch another part in a habitual way. For example, while talking about something I may cover my mouth with my hand without realising. Or I may have a habit of stroking my ear when talking about a particular topic. We can’t infer what this movements may mean, just that they are a habitual thing the person does.

When you look at those three ‘channels’ of communication, it really helps to make clear that context makes all the difference when you notice the way someone is acting. The key thing that helps to provide the context, is gaining a clear understanding of the person’s ‘base line’. That is, what does normal behaviour look like for them? When you notice a significant change in what they are doing is where you know something has caused them to shift. And where you notice behaviours like this, is where careful conversation can take place to help uncover what’s going on there.

For me, I’ve been taking all of the above into account and can look at what’s happening both within me and then with others. There is a lot to be done to help share this out, and it’s quite early days for this training to be as mainstream as going through psychometric training, but I have no doubt it will get there. As I alluded to above, this is one of those courses where I have been able to take the learning and apply it directly to the work I do. I am more confident in how I understand working with others, and the take home point for me is that it provides the foundation for all I understand about emotional intelligence and conversations.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

3 thoughts on “The link between emotions and behaviours”

  1. I work with a lot of role players and many of them talk about body language as looking for the shift in peoples state and what might have caused that rather than what might be behind the particular display. As you say its about their baseline.

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