TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that the group of highest performers is filled with people who are high in emotional intelligence (90% of top performers, to be exact). Because these people know how much our facial expressions influence our ability to communicate, they pay close attention to the facial expressions of others and they match their own facial expressions to the messages they want to communicate.
With masks, even the most emotionally intelligent people face a big challenge: our facial expressions are blocked. And we rely on facial expressions to understand emotions when words are mismatched with tone even more than you might think. According to a UCLA study, facial expressions account for 55% of successful communication when words and tone sound inconsistent.
Perhaps the people most affected by masks are those working front-line jobs. In the world of physicians and nurses for example, studies show that nonverbal cues are linked to better patient care. In the past, healthcare professionals have relied on facial expressions to show their patients empathy, sincerity, competence, and focus. That’s why doctors treating Covid-19 patients in full protective gear have resorted to taping photos of themselves to their scrubs to help put a human face on a scary situation. Or, as another example, in the service industry, waiting staff, baristas, or people working registers rely on facial expressions to make customers feel welcome, to smoothly navigate problems or complaints, and to create a positive atmosphere.
Even people not working front-line jobs still interact with the front line. When we go to the grocery or the doctor, we rely on facial expressions for greetings, to show gratitude, and to connect.
To help you get through these expression-less times, here’s what you can do to communicate with high emotional intelligence skills from the nose up and from the neck down.
Catch what you can. According to Dr. David Matsumoto, a psychologist specializing in emotions and body language, it’s possible to identify each of the following facial signals from above a mask that covers everything below the nose:
- Wrinkles of disgust in the nose, forehead, and eyes.
- Lifting of eyelids and eyebrows in fear or surprise.
- Movement of corners of eyebrows in sadness or distress.
- What we call “twinkling of the eyes,” a happy smile that crinkles the corners of your eyes.
Know what you’re missing. There are facial expressions that happen only or primarily in the mouth region. For these facial expressions, the best we can do is know what we may not see. Pursed lips, neutrality of expression, and a small frown or smile can easily stay contained in a mask. Maybe the most missed expression during the mask era is the “social smile” which is when we smile in place of a greeting or verbal acknowledgement. Because the social smile is manufactured to show appreciation or recognition, it doesn’t activate the whole face. The microexpression in your eyes is not enough to reach the twinkle level of happiness. The result is that your usual social smile when a barista hands you a latte appears blank-faced and possibly ungrateful with a mask.
Catch yourself and compensate. To reveal your hidden facial expressions without unmasking, you first must catch yourself making them. Then, you can compensate with small changes in your expression. For example, to compensate for a social smile, you might fully nod your head, wave, or even say “Hi” or “thank you” out loud with the positive, grateful, or excited tone that you mean to get across. Here are a few other ways to compensate:
- Face the person you’re speaking to.
- Use hand gestures.
- Use your body and head more.
- Exaggerate a reaction so that it crosses the whole face.
- Speak louder and slower. Enunciate.
- Match your tone to your emotion.
- Keep your posture upright to show you’re engaged.
- Make sure you have their attention in the first place.
From Insights to Action. The bottom line is that communicating with masks will never quite reach our normal, nuanced levels of communication and may lower our EQ. However, we can do a lot to avoid communication breakdown and to still get our emotions and ideas successfully across. Here’s a hopeful solution to leave you with: Check out transparent masks. They’re designed for families and friends of hard-of-hearing people who need to read lips, but if more widely adopted, or at least used in more front-line positions, many more facial expressions would be noticeable.
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