One Small Thing

If you want to know how someone really feels about something – just listen

To figure out how your friends, loved ones and co-workers are really feeling, pay attention to their voice, not their face.

It's surprising, but people who listened to others without seeing their facial expressions were better at recognizing their emotional states, a study published Tuesday in the journal American Psychologist found.

It’s the tone of the voice that conveys emotion most deftly, said author Michael Kraus, a social psychologist in the Yale School of Management. The face, on the other hand, can be deceiving.

“As adults, we can monitor and control our facial expressions,” Kraus told TODAY. “Our vocals are much more difficult to control, though, and we have less practice doing that. So a lot of our intentions can leak out more in the voice.”

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If you receive some troubling news, for example, your face could stay blank if you’re determined to hide your suffering, but your voice would still crack and break because it’s harder to manipulate and you’re not used to doing it, Kraus said.

The study involved five experiments with hundreds of people who interacted with each other or watched others interact. Researchers found the participants in “voice-only” scenarios — where they could listen to, but not see other people — were able to more accurately read others’ emotions than participants who were allowed to look and listen.

You might think the more body language you can study the better, but “less is more” when it comes to judging how other people are feeling, the paper noted. When you’re listening to a person’s voice and looking at his face, you’re dividing your attention between those two modes of communication, Kraus said. It’s like multi-tasking — you’ll just end up not doing either thing well. Plus, you may be paying too much attention to the face.

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It’s not practical in real life to close your eyes when you’re talking with someone. Instead, really concentrate on the other person’s voice, Kraus advised. Don’t focus on your own thoughts when other people are talking — like formulating your next question, for example. Pay attention to the way others are taking part in the conversation. What is said and how it is said both provide access to a person’s internal emotional state. Voice pitch, cadence, speed and volume are all good clues — with tone especially significant.

“Listening to the tone is really important… we don’t practice enough listening well,” Kraus said. “Really trying to be curious what someone is saying and how they’re saying it is important for understanding perspective.”

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