The Best Way to Empathetically Connect with Others: Listen


If you want to know how someone is feeling, it might be better to close your eyes and use your ears: People tend to read others’ emotions more accurately when they listen and don’t look.

Research published in the journal Emotion, by Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Dacher Keltner shows that we don’t only detect basic emotional tone in the voice (e.g., positive vs. negative feelings or excitement vs. calm); we are actually capable of detecting fine nuances. We can distinguish anger from fear and sadness; awe from compassion, interest, and embarrassment.”

According to research published in the American Psychologist by Michael Kraus, PhD, of Yale University, “Social and biological sciences over the years have demonstrated the profound desire of individuals to connect with others and the array of skills people possess to discern emotions or intentions. But, in the presence of both will and skill, people often inaccurately perceive others’ emotions,” says Kraus. He goes on to argue: “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 argues “In particular, we contend that the voice, including both speech content and the linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues (e.g., pitch, cadence, speed, and volume) that accompany it, is a particularly powerful channel for perceiving the emotions of others. This assertion supports the central prediction tested in these studies — that voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy relative to communication across senses.”

In the study, Kraus describes a series of five experiments involving more than 1,800 participants from the United States. In each experiment, individuals were asked either to interact with another person or were presented with an interaction between two others. 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. In one case, participants listened to a computerized voice reading a transcript of an interaction.

Across all five experiments, individuals who only listened without observing were able, on average, to identify more accurately the emotions being experienced by others. The one exception was when subjects listened to the computerized voices, which resulted in the worst accuracy of all.

Since much of the research on emotional recognition has focused on the role of facial cues, these findings open a new area for research, according to Kraus.

“I think when examining these findings relative to how psychologists have studied emotion, these results might be surprising. Many tests of emotional intelligence rely on accurate perceptions of faces,” he said. “What we find here is that perhaps people are paying too much attention to the face–the voice might have much of the content necessary to perceive others’ internal states accurately. The findings suggest that we should be focusing more on studying vocalizations of emotion.”

Kraus believes that there are two possible reasons why voice-only is superior to combined communication. One is that we have more practice using facial expressions to mask emotions. The other is that more information isn’t always better for accuracy. In the world of cognitive psychology, engaging in two complex tasks simultaneously (i.e., watching and listening) hurts a person’s performance on both tasks.

One implication of this research is simple, according to Kraus. “Listening matters,” he said. “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.”

In an article in the Greater Good Magazine by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of The Happiness Track, says “Given that we often try to understand other people’s emotions by relying on their faces (and, in fact, tend to overestimate our ability to do so). She adds: “What we now need is more research on how empathy works in text only messaging. One of our foremost modes of communication at the moment is arguably the smartphone — from texting to messaging on Facebook or WhatsApp — and it may be much more challenging to detect emotions accurately in short texts than in voices or facial expressions (emoticons or not).”

Many psychologists, counsellors and coaches who have relied upon telephone sessions with their clients testify how much more emotional content they pick up listening intently rather than just relying on body language and eye contact



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others