Podcast

Sara Nyström on micro expressions and emotional intelligence in business leadership

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Posted
April 27, 2021
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16 minutes

My guest today is Sara Nyström, Executive Director at the Center for Body Language. As a leading expert in body language and the micro facial expressions, Sara educates and trains business leaders around the world in negotiation, sales, leadership and recruitment. In the last year, we’ve shifted far more to remote work, making it harder to read and understand the people on the teams with which we work. Today, we’re discussing building better relations with people across from our teams and understanding micro expressions to enhance our emotional intelligence.

Paul Sephton: Can you start off just by telling us a little bit about what you do and how you got into it? And then perhaps we can unpack what micro expressions are.

Sara Nyström: So, I can look back on my life and I can see that there has been a theme, and that theme has actually been communication. My whole life, I have been blessed to work in many places around the world. I’ve traveled a lot and I both worked and studied in many different countries. And my whole life has been a huge opportunity in practicing communication in so many different ways. And with that, practicing how to build relations. Then later on in life, I stumbled on this, that there was a whole system to what I have been doing my whole life, a system that I can teach: nonverbal communication. It’s such a huge part of communication.

I mean, communication, we usually think about words. Yeah? But the nonverbal part is a huge part. And now with the micro expressions that I teach through this system that we have is actually something that is teachable, that people can learn. They don’t have to travel around the world and communicate with lots and lots of people and exercise for years. We can actually teach you quite quickly.

Paul Sephton: You talk about communication in a very broad sense, I think. And that comes down, like you say, a lot to visual communication as well as verbal communication. What exactly would you describe micro expressions as to someone who hasn’t heard the term before?

We constantly emit signals and we also pick up on signals subconsciously. But we can, however, through exercise and practice, become more aware and more conscious of what we pick up.

Sara Nyström: The exact definition of micro expressions is “involuntary muscle movements of half a second or shorter that reveal hidden emotions.” So, micro expressions, what’s really exciting about them is that they are totally subconscious. That’s actually why they are so useful: because we cannot affect them. They are there and we cannot change them. We cannot affect them in any way by learning how to doing certain movement. They are automatic, so to speak. And they’re also universal, meaning that everybody has them. Even animals, in some occasions, have micro expressions. And this is based on 50 years of research, actually. So it’s nothing new. There are many proofs. Actually, Darwin, already in 1872, he had a thesis on how we show emotions in the same way. And a lot of research has confirmed his research. One study showed that people that are born blind and deaf, they actually showed exact same micro expressions as the rest of people that are born seeing and hearing. So, that means that it’s nothing that we learn. It’s something that we have when we are born.

Paul Sephton: And it’s an interesting thing because you point out involuntary, which is something I think so few people are aware of because we’re so capable these days – or at least we think we are, of mastering our emotions, especially in the workplace. So, what is the involuntary side of it in terms of it being something which just shines through without us being able to control it?

Sara Nyström: The brain has, very simplified, three different parts. We have the emotional part of the brain and we have the rational part of the brain. And then we have the reptile part of brain. So micro expressions are controlled by the emotional and the reptile parts of the brain, which are very, very quick. Those are the ones that when you walk into a forest and you see a stick that looks like a snake, it’s not like you go and you investigate it. No, you jump to the side. That reaction comes from the quick parts of the brain. It’s exactly the same parts that make you show these expressions.

Paul Sephton: And so with that in mind, you talk about how we emit them subconsciously or without any control. And I’m guessing then that we also have within us an ability to read them instantly and react to them without that same level of control. So, why are they so important in terms of the workplace and how we can perhaps better our understanding of a micro expression and our reactions to them?

If you’re able to read and understand the emotions of your potential client, you have so many advantages.

Sara Nyström: Yes, that is correct. We constantly emit signals and we also pick up on signals subconsciously. But we can, however, through exercise and practice, become more aware and more conscious of what we pick up. At the moment, most of us pick things up subconsciously, but we can actually make you conscious through training. And why it’s really good to exercise this is that you instantly get better relations because you can see and understand other people. And they will in turn feel seen and understood. So, the relationship will become much better. And also when we talk about sales, sales build on emotions, right? So, if you’re able to read and understand the emotions of your potential client, you have so many advantages.

Paul Sephton: It seems so real-time that we need to almost be able to slow down time to be able to process and react to these things. What are some of the examples of maybe a cue that I would get, and then how I would be able to process and react to that accordingly?

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Sara Nyström: We have a platform that we work with. It’s quite unique because it’s one thing looking at a still photo, which I think most people do when they find out about micro expressions, and different photos that show different emotions. But if you use video that we work with, you going to get a better chance at really improving your ability to read others. So, in the beginning, we have this platform called micro expression training videos (METV), where you can exercise your ability. We also have different techniques. For example, we have something called the Q4 technique. So, if you see that something happens on the face, but you didn’t quite have time to see what micro expression it was, you can rewind the tape, and by using the very same expression that was set when you got the reaction, you can get that reaction once more. So, that is a technique we teach and we exercise, too.

Paul Sephton: This is really interesting, particularly because of how much things have changed this year. We’ve shifted from this in-person ability, where you can read people far better in meetings, to being fully virtual and relying on video. How do you think in terms of what you’ve observed, this has shifted our ability to perhaps read people and have as much success or acceleration in business as a result?

Sara Nyström: When it comes to communication, the very, very best thing is to meet in person. This is because then we can actually get a feel for the person. I didn’t mention it before, but as much as up to 93% of communication is non-verbal, actually.

The very, very important thing is to make sure you have a good quality camera and you have a good quality microphone to make the most possible out of what we have.

So, when we turn into virtual world, we miss a big part of that. It’s definitely a different thing to see each other online. And the very, very important thing is to make sure you have a good quality camera and you have a good quality microphone to make the most possible out of what we have. And very important also to always have a camera on for many reasons, actually. For the communication purpose, obviously, but also for the person that is giving the meeting. It’s not very motivating to speak to a blank screen. It doesn’t give a good energy. I have been teaching classes where even if you tell people to turn the camera on, they don’t turn the camera on, which is quite difficult. It’s like speaking to a wall. We don’t get the energy in the conversation that we need. So for many purposes, it’s very important to make the best out of it with the equipment that we have.

Paul Sephton: And the other thing we’ve mentioned, which you’ve touched on as well, is around this intercultural communication. What’s your experience like of working across cultures in terms of being able to use micro expressions to your advantage where there might be other barriers or cultural influences at play?

Sara Nyström: As I said, all humans have micro expressions. But there are cultural differences not in the micro expressions per se. In some cultures, like in Japan, for example, people usually tend to mask their true emotions. So when you, for example, show a negative emotion, you mask it automatically with a smile. So if you are not trained, you tend to see the smile and you think everything’s fine, but what you may have missed was the contempt that they showed right before the smile. Then there are other cultures, for example, like in South America or Philippines, where it’s completely okay to show emotions and that’s makes it quite easy, actually, because what you see is what they show you openly, without trying to mask anything.

But when we talk about also the intercultural communication, I find it extremely important to have two things: be curious and be respectful. If you’re curious, you will sit down and actually Google the culture, or you may even get a book on a culture and you really do your research. Doesn’t mean you have to do it for weeks, but you will have a look in the culture.

Be very, very careful about the signals you emit, because the thoughts that you have in your head, they can be picked up subconsciously by the person in front of you.

And then to respect who you have in front of you. When we have a meeting with someone and we are filled with negative emotions, for example of contempt, we think we know better. “You know how they are over in Russia.” I don’t personally have any bad feelings about Russia. But just say that you have a special negative bias based on some experiences you’ve had, and you have a preset idea of a certain culture and certain people that you think you can close it or mask it in conversation. You can’t. They will pick up on it subconsciously. Be very, very careful about the signals you emit, because the thoughts that you have in your head, they can be picked up subconsciously by the person in front of you.

Paul Sephton: We spoke about the Q4 technique a little earlier, but we’ve also discussed in our past conversations the BLINK conversation technique. And I think that’s one which is really interesting. So, can you take some time to unpack and talk me through what the BLINK conversation technique is and how we might be able to use it in that type of negotiation or leadership meeting?

The brain, when it’s busy listening, cannot usually lie. What you see in the face is the truth.

Sara Nyström: The BLINK technique stands for Body Language Interpretations Numinology Know-How. It’s a very long word, which is why we have the abbreviation. It builds on the principle that people can actually not lie when they listen. So, if instead of asking lots and lots of questions, which we usually do during sales meetings, and we should do it, we speak ourselves and we make the other party listen. Because the brain, when it’s busy listening, cannot usually lie. What you see in the face is the truth, for the reasons I explained before with micro expressions.

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For example, in a business meeting, if we do this the whole meeting, that will be very weird; we cannot just give assumptions and not ask a single question. That’s not what I’m saying. But if we do it 5-10% – this could a little bit in the beginning, a little bit in the middle, a little bit in the end – and we watch the reactions very closely, especially in the beginning, the first reactions to what we see, then we have a huge clue there that we can continue asking questions about.

Oprah Winfrey is somebody who uses the BLINK technique very well. Probably it’s a combination of her talent, being very gifted in communication, but also that she has trained and developed this skill throughout the years. For example, if you look at YouTube, you can look at her interview with Lance Armstrong. I think it was 2012 when he revealed the doping scandal. And she does exactly this. We even watch this video in my training sometimes. Though she asks questions, she’s very careful on picking up the signals he is emitting all the time, and she uses them. She uses those signals very, very much.

Paul Sephton: Sara, you’ve mentioned the impact of being able to train someone on micro expressions, but by the same token, what we emit and how we give off signals is equally as important, especially when you’re in a leadership position. I know that you’ve had quite a bit of experience training CEOs and C-suite executives in this practice of really effective body language. Do you have any examples in terms of the impact that body language can have on our work lives and how that can be most successfully achieved?

When we change our thoughts and our minds, the signals that we send out are completely different.

Sara Nyström: In language coaching, we train the mind, or the mindset. One CEO that we trained comes to mind. Before the training, he had a lot of negative signals in his face and he moved his hands a lot in a negative way that could in some instances be seen as positive, but in his way, was a bit uncontrolled. So, after two weeks of training him, he was able to present himself as almost a different person. His whole appearance changed. When we change our thoughts and our minds, the signals that we send out are completely different. So, this guy is somebody for whom you suddenly feel a warmth, and you feel like, “I want to do business with this guy,” whereas the other one, you didn’t get that feeling at all with. So, I usually ask after showing this video in my trainings, “Who would you prefer doing business with?” And obviously everybody goes for the second guy. So, it’s extremely impactful how we can change our signals by working on our insight.

Paul Sephton: And what might some examples of that be? Because we talk about body language and you’ve got some more to unpack, as I understand, that are around the five Cs. Could you perhaps talk through what the five Cs are and then how we might be able to pick up better on cues or where our misunderstandings in body language interpretation might lie?

Sara Nyström: Yeah. When people attempt to learn how to understand body language, usually they think it’s just to read a book on body language and say, “I know what that means when somebody stands with crossed arms. That means that the person is closed.” And I say that it’s not. When we interpret body language, it’s actually a little bit more complex than that. For this reason, we have come up with the five Cs. First, it’s extremely important to keep in mind that the context always influences our interpretations. This means that one gesture can mean something in one situation and completely different thing in another situation. So it’s always the context. For example, if you cross your arms, it could mean that you’re negative, right? It could mean that you are closed. It could also mean that you’re waiting for the bus and you forgot your jacket in the office and you’re freezing.

This is why it is important to not be too quick in interpreting a position. We also need to calibrate. That’s the second C: calibrate. What is the normal behavior of a certain person? When we start talking, we should always try to get a feel for the natural body language of a person. If a person has a habit to sit with arms or legs crossed and does it all the time, it’s useless to give that position a deeper meaning. It’s just a habit as compared to a sudden change. If a person during a certain point in the conversation suddenly crosses his or her arms, it could mean that he or she is disagreeing or has a negative feeling about what’s being said. So, change, the third C, is something we should look out for. The fourth C is comfortable. The more comfortable a person is in a position, it generally reflects what on the inside.

The fifth and final C is combinations. Of course, one certain body language position doesn’t always say or reveal one certain thing with 100% certainty. If we look out for combinations, we can confirm our assumptions. For example, looking at the micro expressions and looking at the body language, and then if we can see same emotions going on there, then we can be more certain about it. These are the five Cs that we can use as a key to an accurate interpretation of somebody’s body language.

Paul Sephton: And this all ties really into the topic of EQ. I find EQ really interesting in the business place because it’s one of these soft skills, which is only becoming more and more valued. What is the correlation then between emotional intelligence in the workplace and this ability to read micro expressions?

“Emotional intelligence is twice more important for success that technical and cognitive skills combined.”

Sara Nyström: I’d like to start out with a quote that the man behind the concept of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, came up with. He said that “emotional intelligence is twice more important for success than technical and cognitive skills combined.” And there is actually a very strong correlation between the ability to read micro expressions and emotional intelligence. And to stretch it even a bit further, there are also correlations with sales results, actually. A lot of our research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that when you train your ability to read micro expressions and you increase that ability, what also happens automatically is that you increase your emotional intelligence by up to 20%.

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It’s actually between 3% and 20%. So, let’s say on average, you increase your emotional intelligence by 10%. Why this happens is because understanding other people’s emotions is such a big part of emotional intelligence. In the context of sales, we have conducted a lot of research in different industries and different countries, and there is definitely a pattern. Through our training, we actually help companies to increase their sales by up to 30%.

Paul Sephton: And that’s an interesting one to play into if we shift from sales to the idea of leadership. I think there was a KPMG study which came out at the end of last month. Every year, they do their annual CEO study. This year they had done one which was obviously very focused towards COVID. And a lot of the outcomes we had seen from CEOs from their study was that the CEOs were far more inspired by purpose and aware of the fact that there needed to be a stronger level of EQ in bringing a company through this type of a pandemic. Given this, what is your general outlook towards this correlation between leadership and EQ?

Emotional intelligence is actually more than 85% of what makes really successful people become or turn into great leaders.

Sara Nyström: Also a very interesting question, Paul. I think it was Johnson & Johnson that did a study published in the Harvard Business Review in 1998 to see how important emotional intelligence is when it comes to successful leadership. What it showed is that there was a very strong correlation between being a good leader and having high emotional intelligence. It has also been said that emotional intelligence is actually more than 85% of what makes really successful people become or turn into great leaders.

Paul Sephton: The only other question which I’d love to dive into for the last bit of our conversation would be around the bigger issue around active listening. There are really a huge number of interesting ways in which we listen, and very often it’s to prepare an answer of our own while someone else is talking or to prove ourselves as the more dominant person in a conversation by again, trying to sort of outdo them in our response. What are your broader tips for, in any conversation, being a deeper listener and a more active listener in a way to achieve better outcomes?

Sara Nyström: Practice, practice, practice. It happens to all of us because we are so eager, but listening is an art. And to some of us, it’s more challenging than to others to totally focus on everything the other person is saying. One thing that helps immensely is just being present, and that can be exercised, and we can become better at it. But also our mindset is extremely important. I mentioned it before when you asked me about the intercultural, not to think lower of anybody else in any other culture because that will translate into subconscious signals that we emit and that they pick up subconsciously. So, when you go to an important meeting with someone, make sure you have a good energy in your body. Don’t have a huge fight. Try to avoid it sometimes. It’s difficult to avoid that perhaps, but try to do something positive before that, something that makes you feel good energy.

The best thing to do is to be very aware of your mindset, as it will really affect your own body language.

Maybe for some people, it’s to go running, and for other people, to watch YouTube for a while. Maybe some people laugh with funny kittens. It doesn’t matter what you do. Maybe you call your best friend. Something that gives you positive energy in your body because you’re going to bring that energy with you to the meeting with the other person. You’re likely to be much more effective than if you walk in from a huge fight that you just had before the meeting. That’s not going to be good. With regard to being an active listener, I don’t have any particular advice on that. You just need to keep practicing and be patient with yourself. Whenever you find your mind running away with your own thoughts, you just bring it back. You say, “That’s okay. That’s okay.” You accept it. “And now I’m there again. Let’s go back.” The best thing to do is to be very aware of your mindset, as it will really affect your own body language.

Paul Sephton: That’s it for today. A big thanks to Sara for sharing her unique insights and knowledge around better using and understanding body language in the working world. Whether you’re in person or connecting via video, the advantages of understanding micro expressions are clear, as well as techniques like the BLINK conversation technique we covered, and the five Cs. If you enjoyed listening, please give us a follow and subscribe. But until next time, cheers for now.

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