Picture this: You're sitting in your interview, having just given an answer, when you're faced with a wall of silence. You're desperate to know how your response was received, but the interviewer is, of course, keeping their cards close to their chest.
Or are they? According to behavioral expert Annie Sarnblad, they could be giving away a lot more than you think. The trick is to learn the cues.
Sarnblad is a specialist in micro-expressions, a grouping of brief, involuntary facial expressions that all humans make. They last mere milliseconds, but are impossible to hide, and Sarnblad says learning them can help us to make the most out of our interactions.
That could mean the difference between securing — or missing out on — that all important job, deal, or even date.
"Micro-expressions are completely subconscious and precede the speech process, but everybody makes them," Sarnblad told CNBC Make It at YPO Edge in Singapore.
"Being able to read them means you can figure out other people's true feelings and adapt the conversation."
"It's like a superpower," she added.
Here are some key emotions and how they present as micro-expressions:
- Anger — pressing together or pursing of the lips
- Fear — lifting of the upper eyelid
- Sadness — puckering of the chin
- Disgust — snarling of the mouth
- Happiness — bulging of the under eyes and lifting of the cheeks
Sarnblad said the eyes can be especially revealing. When our pupils dilate, it indicates desire; when they contract, it shows disinterest. This is true for both professional and personal interactions, and can be applied to the negotiation table, for instance.
"If you're in business, you can take it as a sign of how a negotiation is going. If their pupils dilate, then you've basically got them and you can double your price," Sarnblad said, referring to a potential business partner. "If they shrink, you've lost them."
"You have to take it with a grain of salt," she continued. "But you can see it as a key indicator of how an interaction is going."
Sarnblad added that being able to read those subtle cues means you can preempt someone's response and use it to steer the conversation.
"If you can figure out what someone is feeling, you can decide how to respond; whether to continue and keep poking or to step back," she said.
There are some 10,000 different muscle combinations that make up our varied facial expressions. While Sarnblad can numerically code and discern all of them, she said that it's remarkably easy to identify the most common among them and use them to your advantage.
"It's amazing how quickly you can learn," said Sarnblad, who regularly hosts training sessions with Point House Advisors, the company she founded.
"Once you start recognizing them (the micro-expressions), you realize they've been there the whole time."
For those looking to learn more, Sarnblad recommended reading "anything by Paul Ekman," an American psychologist and a pioneer in the study of facial expressions.
But she added that live training sessions, where you can see the micro-expressions in action, provide the best training.
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