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.


Day 2 of ESaC

Today. Today we’ve started venturing into the detailed learning of what it means to understand emotions in others. As a reminder, the 7 universally recognisable emotions are: sadness, happy, anger, fear, contempt, surprise and disgust. We were taken through the micro expressions people display when they experience this emotion. We were also taken through the theory of how an emotion triggers an automatic appraisal process which leads to an action. There’s a lot to go through, so let’s get started.

First of all we we’re taken through the emotion timeline. That is, from the moment we experience an emotion, how do we move to action. This is at the core of self-awareness on the topic and leads itself to helping us to understand how to manage these emotions when we feel them. I can’t reproduce the timeline or go into detail about its facets due to copyright restrictions.

Essentially when something triggers an emotion in us, we are physiologically hardwired to ready the body for action. We cannot change this as it’s been evolutionarily passed down to us. This all happens within milliseconds. Our experiences will add information to this readiness in order that the body prepares itself in the right way. Most of the time we can trust this automatic reaction. Part of this automatic reaction is the micro expression seen, and part of it is physiological readiness. Up until this point, we’re not conscious of what’s happening. From the point of readiness is when we can determine what action to take. We can either trust that an instinctive action is appropriate for the situation, or we choose to act differently. Once we’ve acted we start to return to our base line – or our normal way of behaving.

What I like about this model is that it helps to give a process to what happens when we feel an emotion to when it is initially acted on. We were taken through the model to help us see how for any of the seven, we can pick a distinct trigger for an emotion and track the path to action. It’s hard to capture just how significant this level of personal insight is. The purpose in doing this exercise is so that we raise our self awareness to enable us to understand how to manage our emotions better. What is crucial about doing this following the Ekman methodolgy is that it’s steeped in scientific research, not just observations and intuition about human relationships – hard data about the human condition.

We moved on from there to learn how to display the seven emotions. I really enjoyed this as it was a good opportunity to practice the facial expressions that go with each. I posted the pictures up attempting to show: base line, sadness, anger, contempt, disgust, happy, surprise and fear. What I found in practicing these was that when I display some of the emotions, they are more subtle (especially contempt!) than they should be and can be.

There was good opportunity to take the Micro Expression Training Tool (METT), which you can also do here. It’s an interactive tool which provides you with information on recognising micro expressions and feedback about selections you make. This was really useful as it tests the learning gained from practicing the micro expressions.

Towards the end of the day we had probably the most pertinent discussion for the L&D community – what about body language? Without doubt, there is no scientific research which shows that non verbal communication through body language means any set of behaviours. That is because, unlike the micro expressions which are universally understood, body language is completely contextual. A backward ‘V’ sign in the UK has one meaning, and something very different in European countries. Importance of eye contact has a myth of indicating truthfulness, but this is not borne in anything. Eye movements that are meant to indicate remembering facts, or making up lies are completely untrue. I could go on. Importantly, very importantly, all L&Ders need to be very careful that we do not describe body language in terms of fact, or science, as there’s no scientific research that currently supports any of it. What we should be careful to do is help people to understand they need to be aware of the persons mannerisms they are with, and notice significant changes to the norm, and from that infer that something changes, but we cannot attach meaning to them.

Today has been full of learning. I’m glad that Paul Ekman International has decided to make this training public as it will only help to strengthen the way many of us use what knowledge and experience we have in delivering interventions, in working with others, in coaching, and in self awareness.

You’re already a body language expert

Body language. Eye contact. Folded arms. Mirroring. Matching energy levels. Mehrabian myth. Microexpressions. Blah, blah, blah. Y’all need to heed my words, and heed them well. In this post I will reveal to you the underlying secrets of body language, where no one has been able to do so before. I will explain the simplicity of becoming a body language reading expert manipulator.

I was delivering a course today on Building Positive Relationships. It’s not a difficult course to be honest. Learn what rapport looks like, how to actively listen, use questioning, read body language and learn about transactional analysis. Aside from the TA, all the other topics could be taught by a dormouse. Eric Berne’s work on TA was and is impressive stuff. You can observe behaviours and infer a ‘state’ of mind? Fascinating. Beyond that, you can temper your own body language, thereby influencing the person you are ‘transacting’ with? Never. Teach me to suck eggs please, I forgot how to do that.

I’m being flippant about TA and it’s insights. It really is a fascinating tool to help understand human relationships within an understandable framework. That’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on – why are we not all experts in reading body language? The first exercise I got the group to do was a simple introduction where they go round talking with each other. And from that the group demonstrated to me that they already understood how to respond to body language. So what were they looking for? What golden nuggets could they learn?

There is no golden nugget. Sorry to burst the bubble. All these ‘experts’ in the field, well they’re pseudo-experts. Even I, who think I am pretty damned observant and insightful when it comes to body language, doubt how much I truly see and understand. The only actual experts in the field of body language are those who have studied it for years to understand what ’emotions’ are being conveyed. This is as far as body language takes you. It takes you no further. Paul Ekman’s seminal work on the very topic is all about microexpressions. The six commonly understood microexpressions are: disgust, fear, anger, sadness, joy and surprise. These aren’t messages. They’re not difficult to learn what they look like. There’s no secret to identifying them. They are readily understood by most cultures across the world.

Beyond this, what do you hope to learn? How to influence people? How to make them do what you want? How to be successful in that interview? How to deliver a great pitch? Do you realise that your body language alone is only one group of indicators that help to deliver the message you are trying to put across? If you want to get better at it, the only way this is possible – and I mean the only way, is through feedback from someone who understands the human condition. This isn’t restricted to any profession. We’re all capable of seeing how one behaviour elicits a response from someone else. Your own self-awareness is very limited in respect to identifying if your body language is appropriate or not. Short of videoing yourself, you’ll never truly gain this insight.

So have you figured it out yet? If you want to be a body language controlling jedi knight, it won’t happen. What can happen is the way you understand your surroundings. Your environment feeds a lot into what body language someone chooses to display. The language they use tells you a lot about how much they understand about the message. The tone of voice tells you a lot about how they feel about the message. How they respond to others tells you a lot about how they respect and appreciate that person. How they act after the meeting tells you a lot about what they took away from that meeting. There’s a complete picture you need to take into account before you decide to hone in on specifics.

Sure, read what’s out there. It’s interesting and might seem like it makes sense. Then come to me and tell me exactly how a) you didn’t realise it before b) will do anything differently now you know c) you will know if you’ve actually improved.

>Is body language really that important?

>I’m developing a course on Building Positive Relationships. Part of the content for this is understanding how to read body language. Searching the interwebs for what others have to say on the topic is raising a lot of concerns for me.

I’m a student of psychology. So for me, understanding human behaviour is pinnacle to all that I do. It’s why I’m in training. I love being able to spot behaviours, interpret them, and respond accordingly. But this has taken time and a lot of training. I started when doing an ‘A’ level in psychology, then my undergrad, onto my postgrad and now the career path I’ve chosen. That’s 15 years of training. And I still don’t know if I’m as savvy about human behaviour as I might either expect to be or should be.
A google search on the topic of body language will present you with far more choice than you know what to deal with. So I’m adding to that mix a hopefully balanced representation of how an understanding of body language can aid your ability to develop relationships you have in whatever capacity you deem appropriate.
So where do we start? I guess let’s dismiss some myths first of all:
1) One piece of work oft cited is work carried out by Albert Mehrabian. His work is misrepresented as stating that 7% of what you say is important 38% of the tone of your voice is important and 55% of your body language communicates what is important. Trainers and communicators have been led astray with this fact. It refers specifically to a combination of the three elements accounting for our liking of a person who is communicating a message their feelings. That’s it. It has no bearing on any other type of communication.
2) Folded arms means defensiveness. Really? So when I’m walking around a room and I’m listening to a discussion that’s happening within a group and (importantly) I’m not taking part, I’m being defensive about it? Uh uh. No. That’s wrong. The key to understanding what the folded arms have to be met in context. Basics of this rest in the fact that if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone and they cross their arms at some point during the conversation it’s likely you’ve said something to put them on the back foot.
3) If your eyes look left you’re lying, if they look right you’re being truthful, if you look to the upper right you’re making things up, if you’re looking to the upper left you’re accessing memory. Jeez Louise. If you believe any of that, you’re being a mug and you deserve to be taken advantage of. Here’s a challenge to identify if it’s a science. Find the original piece of work this is based on or subsequent work that claims to validate these findings. I’ve looked. I’ve found nothing. I’ve found a lot of books claiming to teach you the success to body language. That’s not science.
And the science? Well the only person I trust in the field of body language is professor Paul Ekman Why him? Well his work has been ground breaking in helping organisations such as the police force, immigration, national security, and negotiators to understand what signals they should be looking for that can either give them leverage in their situations, or provide them with context that someone may be about to act violently.
As an aside, a programme called ‘Lie to Me’ was developed based on his work – but don’t take the programme as science, it is entertainment after all.
So back to Paul Ekman. His work has identified that universally (although this was recently disputed) there are 6 common facial expressions that we all comprehend – happiness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise and sadness. It’s fair to say in Western society these expressions can be readily understood. How did he do this? He took images of a complete range of facial expressions and showed them to a tribal people who had little contact with the Western world. He found that with this tribe those 6 expressions were readily identified correctly each and every time over successive trials. We can (and appropriately) extrapolate that this is therefore true across all modern cultures.
If you want anecdotal evidence – look at how young children react to adults. Those basic expressions elicit from children predictable responses. Happiness encourages happiness, anger prompts defense, fear prompts uncertainty, sadness encourages sympathy, disgust provokes curiosity, and surprise elicits either laughter or fear of reaction.
But what about all this stuff about it being the crucial factor in how successful: your presentation will be, if you’ll get that job, how much someone is flirting with you, if you’ll win that pitch? This is where I start to get really cautious about what ‘experts’ are saying.
Body language is an important factor in how you are perceived by others, and how you respond to others. Being mindful of what behaviours others are displaying will enable you to either act differently yourself or encourage behaviour from others. But it’s only one factor. The preparation you do for an interview (for example), the research you’ve done, the way you answer questions, the rapport you build, your delivery of message, all these will be equally important in your success of your interview. All these factors need to be in ‘congruence’ or aligned in order for success to be given its best shot. None individually or collectively will guarantee success.
So where does this leave the topic of body language? My insight here is this. Be mindful of your body language, and others body language. It will often give you a clue about what the other person is likely to either feel or think. Whatever you think you have observed, always follow up with a confirmation or question about that observation. E.G. “Bob, the way you fold your arms when delivering your presentation gives the impression that you’re portraying an image of being in control. Are you anxious about the topic or the presentation in some way?” or “Bob, I’ve been observing for a while that you’ve not participated in this conversation and you seem to be quiet. Do you have something you want to add to this?”
The numerous websites making claims about what body language ‘really’ means aren’t lying to you. They’re just giving you a very biased, one sided view of the world. They’re not telling you to contextualise everything you are observing. As a psychologist that’s what helps me to understand pretty accurately what I’m observing.