The Art of “Reading” Emotions

New Science of Emotional Well-being Series: Part 3

In-person or on screens, it can be a challenge to accurately “read” how others are feeling. The new brain science has a few things to say about this.

Decades ago, as psychology undergrads, we were tasked with memorizing whole taxonomies of “body language.” It was based on the science of the time claiming that emotions express themselves in classic and universal signature behaviors.  As the myth went, being emotionally intelligent means learning how to emotionally “read” people. There is now a whole industry around the idea of using artificial and machine learning technologies to make accurate assessments of internal states from external cues and patterns. It is not supported by the latest neuroscience. 

According to her research at Northeastern University in Boston, Lisa Feldman Barrett reports that the old research had significant design flaws. The new science indicates that when it comes to emotional expression, variety is the norm. 

People smile when happy about 12% of the time and scowl when angry 28% of the time. People can smile in love, fear, anger, anxiety, depression, or happiness. Just as emotions do not exist in specific locations in the brain, they don’t express themselves in predictable ways. Our ability to get wrong what others might be feeling is limitless.

Even when we successfully guess what someone else is feeling from observing them, the chances are good that they are also feeling otherwise as well. Researcher Kate Barford finds that pure emotions are rare. We more commonly have layers of emotions at any point in time. Mixed emotions are more likely than singularities.

An intelligent approach to knowing how someone feels is to ask them. No amount of confidence in our capacity for prediction, interpretation, and assumption can substitute for directed curiosity. 

Even with curiosity, emotional transparency and accessibility are more likely when others have a palpable sense of emotional safety, that what they reveal will be received with understanding rather than criticism or rejection. People will reveal what their behaviors do not or cannot when they feel comfortable doing so.

The other dynamic in how freely people articulate how they feel is that feelings and emotions are not the same. Feelings, pleasant and unpleasant, are physical sensations in our body such as feeling a tense stomach or jaw, neck stiffness, tingling hands, or a hot forehead. These can accompany any and opposite kinds of emotions. We can feel each in flashes of love or hate. As soon as we put words to feelings, like “That is so nice of them to say that…” we create an emotion we might categorize as appreciation, relief, or delight. 

We can have varieties of feelings without emotions. When we ask how someone feels it could be the first time they compose emotions from their feelings with words for this situation. That’s another reason why curiosity opens the door to honest, accurate, and useful emotional expression. 

Knowing how others feel is an art, and certainly one we can learn, practice, and master. It is vital to our understanding and responding to the truth of their experience.

This post includes excerpts from The Poetry of Human Emotion: A Science-based Guide to Emotional Well-being (Jack Ricchiuto, 2020 NuanceWorks). Learn more here.


About Jack

In my late twenties I had the good fortune to have mentors who were practice leaders in what was then called the Human Potentials Movement. They inspired me to help organizations and communities realize their potential in ways they never imagined. It became clear this was the core gift that would shape the past 40 years.