How many Skype, Teams and Zoom calls have you participated in this week? How many people have had the opportunity to examine your face up-close and personal?
In many conversations, particularly in these uncertain times, colleagues may be reading your facial expressions and looking for clues. An eye-roll here and a slight frown there could really undermine your message. This is known as involuntary, nonverbal leakage. It is a “leaked” facial expression revealing the emotion you are actually feeling. It directly conflicts with the emotion you are trying to express. Involuntary leakage is universal. It happens to all of us.
Colleagues may catch a fleeting facial expression that reveals emotions we’re trying to conceal, and it happens within 1/25th of a second! These micro expressions in real-time may give you a sense of unease and mistrust in the individual leaking, even if you can’t say why. Involuntary emotional leakage isn’t always brief either. Sometimes, where two groups of facial muscles compete on the face, they can produce noticeable asymmetry. An example of the asymmetry in emotional leakage is someone smiling with their mouth when their eyes look like they’re about to cry.
Micro expressions occur in everyone, often without their knowledge. So, what can you do to prevent it from occurring? Absolutely nothing! The best way forward is to be your authentic self. Don’t lie, be genuine and have others interests at heart, then you won’t get caught out. Be aware of your strengths, limitations, emotions and genuinely lead with your heart, not just with your mind. Communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but make sure it’s done with empathy.
Here are a few suggestions that you can implement right away:
- ask for truthful feedback from others about their perception of your behaviour and style (you might get an indication of how much facial leakage you really have going on!)
- if you cannot tell people something confidential, say so and explain why
- show vulnerability and humanness, it’s okay to say that you don’t have all the answers
- apply emotional intelligence when dealing with others; don’t treat them like you would want to be treated but instead treat them like they want to be treated
- express discomfort with situations, decisions and requests that don’t sit well with you
- gather a wide range of viewpoints and solicit input from other people, especially those who won’t be afraid to challenge your position
Using it to your advantage
Remember, facial leakage isn’t all bad – particularly as an observer, it can really help to increase your emotional awareness. Unlike verbal communication or gestures, facial expressions are a universal system of signals which reflect the moment-to-moment fluctuations in a person's emotional state.
So, your face (and the face at the other end of your video call) offers us the best window into our emotional lives. Regardless of culture, language, or personal background, we all share this common form of nonverbal communication. With less truly ‘in person’ interactions happening, picking up on the micro-expressions of others can help you identify a potential performance or well-being issue early on, and help to solve it.
Finally, as you share information, remember to be open and honest with others, express your true thoughts and feelings, then those naughty micro-expressions won’t undermine you!