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.

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.