Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Truth In Body Language

What we can learn from watching how people move

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We all give ourselves away every minute of every day. That is, we broadcast our true intentions, feelings, and even thoughts without knowing it through our body language, tone, and facial expression. This happens whether those intentions, feelings, and thoughts match what we express through language or not. Thus, poker players compromise their bluffs, public speakers their performance anxiety, and friends and lovers their true feelings.

This happens not just because we broadcast these messages so "loudly," but also because unless we're talking about someone with autism, Asperger's syndrome, or dementia, research shows that human beings are experts at understanding them. Even so-called "microexpresssions"—facial expressions that appear and disappear so quickly that almost no one registers them—have an impact on us, albeit an unconscious one, perhaps explaining how we gain intuitions about what people are really thinking and feeling without knowing how.

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As good as we all are at reading body language, tone, and facial expression, however, it seems we do this mostly through our intuition—that is, we come to conclusions about what someone is thinking or feeling without being able to explain why. When asked to justify why we think someone is mad, for example, we're often reduced to making inane-sounding statements like, "You just look mad." And without being able to justify our impressions more concretely, we find ourselves far more likely to dismiss our intuition when it's challenged. After all, who knows better what someone is feeling, the person himself or the people around him?

In fact, it may be the people around him. Our own awareness of what we're feeling, it turns out, is affected by many things: by how strongly we may want to avoid feeling it, by how we may be wired to experience emotions as physical sensations, and by how many other emotions we may be feeling at the same time, to name just a few. As ridiculous as it may sound, our own subjective awareness may not actually be the most accurate monitoring and reporting system of our emotional state.

We all presume it is, however. Which often gets in the way of good communication. Whether you're communicating with a friend, a lover, a spouse, or a boss, people often have incentives to lie not just to you about what they're thinking and feeling but also to themselves. And that second kind of lie is even harder to detect than the first: if a person genuinely believes he's not angry when, in fact, he is, for example, we're far more likely to be convinced by his arguments as we're likely to detect not only that he's angry but also that he's being honest. How then do we reconcile that contradiction? Often by believing what he says rather than what we intuit.

My point here is that we discount our intuitive read of the emotions people are feeling far more often than we should. We allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by what they say and in so doing find ourselves perpetuating fictions that we can't disprove but that we don't believe in our heart. We're thus often prevented from resolving issues that we want to resolve.

So my advice: even if you can't explain why, trust your intuitive readings of other people. At the very least, don't surrender them out of hand the very first time they're challenged. If there exists a discrepancy between what you think someone is feeling and what they say they're feeling, more often than not there exists a second feeling that's strongly influencing their willingness to admit their first—and it's this second feeling that's often the real problem. Your spouse seems angry but won't admit it? Fine. Don't press him on his anger. Seek to understand why he doesn't want to admit he's angry. Perhaps he's afraid to feel anger. Perhaps he's invested in believing he's not an angry person. Luckily, people are often less sensitive about this second feeling (often not even realizing they're feeling it), making it, therefore, easier to uncover. And once you do uncover it—once it's openly recognized between you both—the problem with denying the first feeling often goes away on its own.

Trust your intuition. Though you must always remain careful not to overweight it, remember that you're an expert on reading the feelings of those you know.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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