This Could Be the Key to Understanding People Better

Talking to someone face-to-face might not be the gold standard of communication.

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Building emotional connections with other people is a critical part of being human, and it’s long been thought that speaking to someone face-to-face is the best way to listen and understand how they feel. But a new study published in the journal American Psychologist found we might better off only listening to someone—not looking at them—to more accurately gage their emotions.

Lead study author Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, and his colleagues designed five different experiments with 1,772 U.S. participants. In each experiment, participants either interacted with another person or observed two other people talking. In “some cases, participants were only able to listen and not look; in others, they were able to look but not listen; and some participants were allowed to both look and listen,” according to the press release. One condition used a computerized voice to measure how people responded to interactions that didn’t have the kinds of emotional cues we’re used to in speech.

Across the board, the researchers found that people who were only allowed to listen were better at identifying other people’s emotional states. The only exception was the computerized voice condition, which led to the worst accuracy in identifying emotion. “Our research suggests that relying on a combination of vocal and facial cues, or solely facial cues, may not be the best strategy for accurately recognizing the emotions or intentions of others,” Kraus said in the press release.

“Listening matters,” Kraus said in the press release. “Actually considering what people are saying and the ways in which they say it, can, I believe, lead to improved understanding of others at work or in your personal relationships.”

Kraus suggests two possibilities for his findings: one is that we’re better, and more used to, hiding how we’re doing facially than we are vocally. Essentially, we’re more likely to have practice putting on a happy face than adopting a cheery tone. Kraus wrote via email that, “there is an entire industry of trade books, a whole TV series, on managing your nonverbal behaviors to convey meaning or to deceive,” while “comparatively, there is a lot less about how we use vocal tone in the same capacity.”

The second possibility is that when we’re listening and looking at someone, it’s harder to pay attention to what they’re actually saying. “By trying to get everything a person is communicating you are likely to miss some things,” Kraus wrote. “Focusing on one channel of communication that richly conveys meaning is a better strategy in our research.”

Kraus said that his findings help emphasize how important other senses and cues—besides visual ones—are in reading people.

This has pretty profound implications, especially in an era where so many of our conversations take place via devices. “As society becomes more dispersed with technology and more information at our fingertips people have to manage their emotional lives a little differently,” Kraus wrote. “One way is to understand how we can stay connected in this global world even when we don’t have the chance for face-to-face contact.”

This doesn’t solve the communication gaffes we experience with chatting online, but it does give credence to the idea that calling someone on the phone can be an effective way of checking in. That makes the idea of a long distance friendship or romantic relationship seem less, well, distant. “I think the research suggests that a lot can be said over the phone that conveys rich emotional meaning,” Kraus wrote to me. “Sometimes you just need to hear your partner’s voice on the line.”

Read the press release here and the study here.

Psychology, Work Smarter, Advice, Life Lessons