Recognizing facial expressions is key to improving relationships

by / Comments Off on Recognizing facial expressions is key to improving relationships / 536 View / August 30, 2015

Recently Jim was talking to his wife about how to improve their love life. She explained that her desire for physical intimacy was stirred when she felt more emotional intimacy in their relationship. She said those feelings happen when he’s listening to her stories and paying attention to how she feels about topics they discuss.

Jim responded with a quick comment regarding becoming a better listener. Then he launched explaining the problems he foresees with finding any time to talk given their busy schedule with kids and school and sports and work.

As Jim continued to expound on the challenges, the look on his wife’s face revealed flashes of surprise, anger, and eventually hopelessness. But she never said a word, and Jim didn’t – couldn’t? – read her non-verbal signals. Because he was oblivious to the signs that he was alienating his wife, he continued to dig himself deeper into the “it’s hopeless” hole.

Unfortunately, Jim turns his wife off when he talks to her. He’s not adept at reading the subtle facial signals that she sends when they’re conversing. Because he’s missing these micro-expressions, he has no idea what impact his words are producing.

Jim needs to upgrade his communication skills if he wants his relationship to work out more satisfactorily. First of all he needs to be able instantly sense his wife’s emotions by learning to read the flicker of emotion that flits across her face. In a quarter of a second – the snap of a finger – people unconsciously show spontaneous clues as to how they’re feeling at any given moment. They may put on a mask after that if they decide to project a different impression, but for an instant their true feelings are on display.

Reading these fleeting expressions is imperative for police, judges, and diplomats, which is why they often receive specialized training to develop their ability to detect the emotions that are revealed by micro-expressions. The fact of the matter is that all of us – lovers, teachers, leaders, etc. – benefit from improving our power of perception regarding the signals that show how someone truly feels when we’re interacting with them.

Micro-expressions are read directly by the smooth mid-brain, so they by-pass the higher level cerebral cortex that helps us think things over. Instead, the primate part of our brain uses its capability to instinctively sense the emotion that’s associated with the expression that flashes on someone’s face.

This direct link to our primitive brain is what makes it possible for us read this quarter-second affective signal. Psychologist Paul Ekman has been teaching people to use this skill for several decades, and most recently was a consultant to Disney’s film Inside Out.

Jim would benefit from taking Ekman’s training and learning how to read his wife’s emotional signals. He’d develop his ability to sense whether his words were creating positive or negative emotions. With this feedback, he could create more positive emotional connections with his wife, which sets the stage for increased intimacy.

Ekman’s training programs are online and available to the general public. The METT/SETT training can be purchased on his website – – for under $100. I’ve used this program with many clients over the years and they’ve found it relatively easy to improve their relationship skills. Most people can double their ability to accurately detect micro-expressions in about an hour.

In the beginning of the training most folks simply see a startling blur of movement flashing across a frozen face that suddenly comes to life on their computer screen. People have to guess which of the seven primary emotions are flashing in front of them: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, contempt, or disgust. The program provides feedback as to the correct response.

The training also provides the opportunity to study the expressions in slow motion as part of the skill-building. People improve their ability to read emotions automatically as this program trains their brain’s primal neural circuits to correctly detect high-speed signals.

Jim worked hard to master the micro expression training. Being able to accurately read his wife’s expressions dramatically improved his ability to understand her feelings. This skill enabled Jim to empathize with his wife’s emotions, and provided the emotional connection she was craving.

Learning to recognize facial expressions also helped Jim to better manage his own emotions. With increased awareness of his wife’s negative feelings, Jim began to notice how he was reacting. Rather than talking over his wife when his own negative emotions were triggered, Jim expressed much more empathy.