When a Microexpression Says it All

Noticing people’s expressions and following your intuition to uncover what is behind that expression has the power to fuel camaraderie in the workplace. 

As I sat across the table from the CEO, he excitedly described his latest and greatest project. He always had terrific  ideas that energized me. But, as he described the role he wanted me to take on, my heart sank. The images running through my head were not pointing to my sweet spot. 

I quickly pulled myself together to conceal my reaction, because I wanted to be a team player. My intuitive CEO, however, caught the microexpression that flashed across my face before I could hide it. 

He paused and asked a question that led us into a deeper conversation of clarity about my role. The entire interaction enhanced our level of trust and strengthened our friendship. I walked away from that meeting energized about the project too. 

I learned something about leadership that day. Noticing and responding to microexpressions builds trust and creates genuine friendship. 

What is a microexpression? Much like it sounds, it is that quick expression that “says it all”. The flash across the face triggered by the emotional brain before our thinking brain kicks in and we regulate that emotion. It can pass so quickly that we ignore it. 

“There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and contempt. They often occur as fast as 1/15 to 1/25 of a second. The face is the best indicator of a person’s emotions. Yet, it often is overlooked.”

~Vanessa Van Edwards

Whether in a time of crisis or not, taking the time to notice and pause to explore the microexpressions that subtly surface and then are quickly hidden can fuel both trust and friendship. If you overlook it, you might be missing out on the opportunity to dig in to emotions that will later surface and potentially jeopardize the project. As a key contributor to a team’s success, camaraderie becomes even more critical in times of stress and unexpected hurdles. 

My CEO knew that and was not afraid to engage with the potential emotions under the surface. He had learned the power of digging in early and creating a trust factor that fueled not only friendship, but ownership and engagement with the project. 

Your Mission >> Should You Choose to Accept It

Become a student of microexpressions this week. Observe others when you are talking with them. You might have to tune in intently if your conversation is a virtual one! Which of the seven microexpressions did you observe: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and contempt?

If you’re brave enough, pause and ask a question. Slow down the conversation and take the opportunity to explore what is behind the microexpression. 

  • Did this microexpression match up with what was being said? 
  • When you notice a disconnect, what might be behind this? Ask a question to discover more, such as: “I noticed you seemed surprised by my request, but you said you were excited about the project … can you say more about that?”

Comment below your thoughts about noticing microexpressions and.their potential on influencing conversational outcomes.

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Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center of Coaching Excellence.

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