Microexpressions: How to Read Them in the Workplace and Increase Your EQ

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

The term “micro expression” was initially popularized by Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist whose research was highly influential and foundational to the study of emotions and their corresponding expressions. After traveling all over the world and working with people from many different cultures, countries and backgrounds, he found that despite their disparities, people express core emotions in the same way. Even congenitally blind people who have never visually seen how others make these same expressions, he discovered.

Micro expressions convey emotion, yes, but they carry more weight in real-life contexts, including work environments. They can influence how professional we seem, how we’re perceived and even whether or not we succeed in our careers.

Your ability to read and understand them will also affect your professional life — and your overall emotional intelligence.

What are micro expressions? 

In order to understand microexpressions, you should know what macro expressions are. Macro expressions are what we generally think of as “normal” expressions. They tend to last several seconds and correspond to the individual’s tone and general demeanor.

Micro expressions are universal facial expressions that last a much shorter period of time, typically half a second or less. They are involuntary, unconscious emotional reactions that occur so quickly that others — including the person expressing the emotion — may (and often do) miss them altogether. They are considered indications of what the person is actually feeling, not just the mood or sentiment they are consciously displaying, the latter being a macro expression. 

Everyone makes microexpressions, whether they are aware of it or not, and you have no control over their occurrence. 

Why is understanding micro expressions important in the workplace?

You’ll form more positive relationships.

When you understand what people are feeling — really feeling, not just what they’re saying they’re feeling — you’ll be better equipped to connect with them and speak to their true motivations. This can lead to more positive working relationships, an essential part of being a successful professional — that is, establishing a strong rapport with your colleagues.

You’ll be better equipped to detect dishonesty and deception.

Dishonesty is an unfortunate part of workplace — and personal — interactions in some cases. It can be difficult to detect when people, including colleagues, vendors, clients and managers, are not being wholly forthcoming with you. But when you are able to read microexpressions, you’ll be better equipped to spot evidence of deception in that split second when true feelings show themselves.

You’ll gain confidence.

Reading micro expressions and other nonverbal cues is a critical skill, one that will carry you far in your career. When you’re able to master this skill, you’ll gain confidence as an emotionally intelligent and aware professional. This confidence will carry you far — in job interviews, in performance reviews, at networking events, in meetings, in contract and job offer negotiations and well beyond.

You’ll improve your professional interactions

No matter what your industry or role, understanding and reading micro expressions will inevitably improve your interactions with others in your line of work. For example, sales representatives and managers will be better able to read prospective clients and customers, thus leading to improved sales outcomes. Educators will be more equipped to understand their students and help them succeed in their learning. Healthcare and medical professionals can deliver care to their patients in a more empathetic way (also known as bedside manner).

How to read micro expressions

Learning how to read microexpressions is no easy feat. Even the most empathetic individuals and those with high emotional intelligence sometimes miss these ultra-fast displays of real emotion. But there are still ways to improve your skills.

1. Familiarize yourself with the seven microexpressions.

First, you should be aware of the seven universally recognized microexpressions. These are expressions of the seven universally recognized core emotions:

• Anger

• Contempt

• Disgust

• Fear

• Joy

• Sadness

• Surprise

While there are, of course, many nuances to each emotion, the ways people display them with these nonverbal cues are one and the same. Once you understand the base emotions people are displaying, you’ll be better able to recognize the different types of emotions that appear on people’s faces unconsciously and what they indicate about their real emotions.

2. Pay attention to faces and facial expressions.

This is an obvious one, but it needs to be stated nonetheless: in order to read microexpressions, you need to pay attention to faces. These expressions occur extremely quickly — so quickly that you’ll miss them altogether if you’re not paying attention (and sometimes even if you are). 

Paying attention to people’s faces and other nonverbal cues will carry you far in other respects, too. Many people struggle with eye contact, but it’s a crucial part of demonstrating your authenticity and connecting with others. It will also make you appear more confident, honest and genuine.

3. Understand and learn to recognize the components of each microexpression.

Despite how quickly micro expressions occur, there are actually several components that make each of the seven emotions up. For example, when someone is surprised, you may see a sliver of white above and below the iris and pupil. The eyebrows will rise upward, and they will appear arched. Meanwhile, when you’re disgusted, you might squint your eyes, wrinkle your nose and curl your lip — all within less than a second.

This probably sounds a bit obvious, but when it’s occurring as quickly as it does, it can be difficult to spot, especially if you don’t know what to look for. So make sure you familiarize yourself with the universal signals of each emotion so you can train yourself to identify them when you do see a microexpression on someone’s face.

4. Beware of the dangers of reading microexpressions.

The ability to read microexpressions is a useful tool, but according to Paul Ekman, the same psychologist who popularized the concept, there are some dangers associated with relying too heavily on these nonverbal cues. 

Dr. Ekman explains that in some contexts, it can be considered a privacy invasion, alerting professionals who have interests that don’t always align with the subject’s to information that person doesn’t want them to have. Moreover, he argues, law enforcement officers (LEOs) who are trained to read microexpressions can be privy to certain information that individuals want protected, and this is, in spirit at least, a violation of their Fifth Amendment right.

Where to find microexpression training

Another step toward equipping yourself with the ability to read microexpressions to better utilize them in work and life is training. There are several options, including:

Paul Ekman Group

Dr. Ekman’s eponymous organization offers several resources for improving emotional awareness and perception, including microexpression training. There are several different packages, ranging from Face Basics, which teaches you to learn the fundamentals of identifying the subtlest of expressions, to the comprehensive Ekman Library, which includes all the tools to help you read microexpressions and respond to the emotions you see in others.

People School

Founded by Vanessa Van Edwards, the Science of People offers resources for understanding the art and science of communication. People School provides training, including exercises and other tools, to help individuals improve their social skills and form better relationships — leading to more opportunities and success.

Udemy: Micro Expressions Training & Body Language for Lie Detection

One of the internet’s top course libraries has a course dedicated to detecting facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, such as body language, toward the goal of improving your career and personal skills. Udemy boasts that course completers increase their Emotional Intelligence by an average of 10%. The course was developed by Patryk Wezowski & Kasia Wezowski, the founders of the Center for Body Language.

The ability to read people is an important competency for your work life and beyond, helping you develop socially, cognitively and otherwise. Despite the fact that the term contains the prefix “micro,” the idea is in no way minor — it’s an important concept that can lead to success.

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.