Get to know the other person. "Our empathic accuracy improves with how well we know our conversational partner," says William Ickes. "If you interact with someone over the course of at least a month, you'll be much better able to read their thoughts and feelings." This "acquaintanceship effect" comes about in two ways: First, after observing our partners over time and in different situations, we become better able to interpret their words and actions; and second, we learn more about what's going on in their lives and can use this knowledge to put the cues they give us in greater context.
Ask for feedback. Studies demonstrate that we can quickly improve our empathic accuracy by finding out whether our guesses are on target. "You can solicit feedback from people by saying things like, 'It sounds like what I'm hearing is that you're angry—could that be right?'" Sara Hodges suggests.
Pay attention to the upper part of the face. Phony "social emotions" tend to be expressed on the lower half of the face, while "primary emotions" leak out across the upper half, mostly around the eyes, according to Calin Prodan, a professor of neurology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Be expressive. Emotional expressiveness is reciprocal; we respond to others' self-revelations with outpourings of our own. "I think of it as 'emotional sonar'—we all go around 'pinging' other people, and getting emotional information back," says Ross Buck. "If you send out louder or more frequent pings, you'll get more in return."
Relax. Conversation partners tune into each other's posture and breathing, says Lavinia Plonka, author of Walking Your Talk. If you're tense, your friend may unconsciously mirror your tightly crossed arms and become more inhibited—and thus harder to read. Take a deep breath, smile, and try to project openness and receptivity to whomever you're with.