We typically try to identify other people’s emotions through their facial expressions—eyes in particular. Eye contact is certainly critical in empathy, and many psychologists use the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” exercise (where you detect subtle shifts in the looks people give you) to test empathy in their experiments. (http://socialintelligence.labinthewild.org/mite/)
But The Washington Post reports that a new study by Michael Kraus of the Yale School of Management has found that our sense of hearing may be even stronger than sight when it comes to accurately detecting emotion. Kraus found we are more accurate when we hear someone’s voice than when we look only at their facial expressions, or see their face and hear their voice simultaneously. In other words, you may be able to sense someone’s emotional state even better over the phone than in person (Tweet it!).
In several follow-up studies, Kraus focused on the reason why the voice—especially when it is the only cue—is such a powerful mode of empathy. Participants were asked to discuss a difficult work situation over a video conferencing platform, using either just the microphone or the mic and video. They were more accurate at detecting each other’s emotions in voice-only calls. When we only listen to voice, he found, our attention for subtleties in vocal tone increases. We simply focus more on the nuances we hear in the way speakers express themselves.
So how can we get better at interpreting emotions in voices? The human ability to perceive nuances in voices is extremely sophisticated, research shows. But as with other communication skills, paying attention is key. The more you focus on audio cues, the more you will learn.
Can you think of a situation where you were able to “read” important emotional information through someone’s voice alone? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.
If you would like to read more about creating a habit around masterful communication, check out our book: Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion