The tiny facial cues that can tip you off

Picking up the early cues gives you more time to take action, change what you’re doing or prepare for what’s coming next

body language facial cuesDuring the recent B.C. election, I had lots of questions about how to interpret non-verbal communication cues.

Let’s focus on the micro cues on faces. Not the obvious raised eyebrows and downturned mouth expressions, but some of the not-so-obvious signals – like skin colour change.

When someone is described as “hot around the collar,” they’re experiencing a temperature rise and increased blood flow in the cheeks, the neck and the area just below.

Conversely, people can be described as going “as white as a sheet,” when there’s a noticeable drain of blood from the skin.

Provided there isn’t a rapid rise or fall in temperature, or the person isn’t physically ill, you can assume these changes are due to a powerful emotion.

People often make unconscious micro-muscular movements. When you can detect these, you’re getting early warning information about a change. You might see the mouth and nose twitch from side to side (very slightly) when someone is trying to decide. Or this brain conflict might reveal itself in the incline of the head in opposite directions.

The muscles of the mouth move a lot even when we’re not saying anything. Upward movements are more likely to indicate a positive thought than downward movements.

Forehead muscles twitch before they form a frown or before the eyebrows narrow.

Quite a lot of my clients lick their lips when they recall a favourite memory. Often their tongue pokes out just a tiny bit and then retreats. When I point it out, they’re often quite unaware of having done it.

Then there are those multi-tasking eyes, often referred to as “windows to the soul.” Not only do they express the widest range of emotions, they also move in specific ways as we take in and process information.

Ask someone a question and pay attention to where their gaze goes. People look in different directions depending on what emotions and thoughts they’re accessing.

People also use their eyes to visualize things in the space above and to each side of them. It’s like one big cinema up there. When people create images in their mind’s eye, it’s as if they’re projecting it somewhere in the space around them. Don’t mistake this for a lack of attention because they’re not looking at you. They’ll look down when they’re ready.

You can sometimes see someone look out, and then move their eyes and body back from the image, trying to get more distance.

People also move their eyes to specific locations when talking to themselves. When you hear a noise, your eyes move toward the noise. When you talk to yourself, your eyes move towards your ears. If you notice someone doing this, they’re likely engaged in internal dialogue. When I notice clients doing it, I might say, “So what are you saying to yourself?”

They look surprised, as if I’ve read their minds.

But I’m not psychic – I’m just very observant!

When someone begins to display signs of negative emotions bubbling up, notice where they’re looking. They’ll typically have eyes (and body) cast downwards. By redirecting them to look elsewhere, you may help them avoid becoming overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions.

These cues are focused on the pre-signals’ rather than the obvious body language we’re used to spotting. By the time you get the obvious signals, it’s too late. The opportunity is missed or, worse still, the damage is done.

Take personal space invasion. When I ask people, “How do you know you’re too close?” they always say, “The other person moves back.” And I reply, “And then it’s too late, you’ve invaded their space. If you’re able to pick up the signals they give out before they move back, you’ll be able to stop yourself invading.”

When moving closer to people, be on the alert for slight changes in the eyes, often an almost-imperceptible narrowing (or widening depending on how fast you’re moving in).

Watch out for the chin moving back toward the neck. When you get those signals, stop.

Picking up the early cues will put you ahead of the game. You get more time to take immediate action, change what you’re doing or prepare for what’s coming next. That split-second can make or break communication.

And by being extra observant, you might just avoid all that unnecessary conflict that took you by surprise!

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.

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