“Emotions Revealed” by Paul Ekman


In case you’re not familiar, the Diplomatic Leadership Training by Grassroot Diplomat puts empathy, emotions and non-verbal communications at the heart of our skills training for diplomats. Diplomats work abroad to serve the interests of their country, which means working with a wide range of stakeholders who may have very conflicting interests. When working with other diplomats who clash very badly with our national objectives and values, building any sort of relationship with them could be incredibly testing. Using coping mechanism such as avoidance strategy doesn’t work in a situation like this, and many diplomats are put in a position where they have to lie to protect their government’s policies. This can be problematic, particularly if deception techniques is not favoured or something you necessarily want to do.  

A useful skill for diplomats to harness is the ability to recognise emotions, whether it belongs to us or other people. If you ever wanted to know if someone was being dishonest, or trying to deceive you with a friendly smile, putting emotions under the microscope and understanding where these emotions come from can be a critical bargaining tool at the diplomat’s arsenal.

To help us recognise emotions and how to connect more effectively with others, we recommend the book “Emotions Revealed: Recognising faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life” by Paul Ekman in support of Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” of the Diplomatic Planner.

AUTHOR: Paul Ekman

AUTHOR: Paul Ekman

Non-verbal communication was a language that we were once fluent in. Before the development of verbal language, our bodies and faces were the only means of human communication and our face signals our most nuanced emotions. Also, our body language gives the biggest cues on what we can’t or don’t want to say out loud, which can be extremely useful when observing others silently and at a distance. Imagine how useful this skill can be when in conference. Ekman states that the deciphering facial expressions is a lost art and his book re-trains you on how to reign in on these very subtle emotional cues.

Emotional triggers are innate reactions and sometimes our emotions can defy logic, such as an irrational fear of spiders or heights. The author suggests that irrational and powerful emotions like these can be a result of a childhood trauma which he goes through at length in his book. So if you have a powerful emotional reaction to something, take a look at what happened to you as a child and whether you can create a link to your past and present circumstance.

One of the clearest signs of emotions is sadness. Typically sadness is revealed through raised inner eyebrows, contracted cheeks and widened lips. Even if someone is trying to hide their sadness, there a telltale signs you can pick out. Sadness is overwhelming when a vertical crease appears between the raised inner eyebrows. The cheeks are also slightly raised and more prominent, making the expression more dramatic, like a sad smile.

Alternatively, anger is displayed by lowered brows, glaring eyes and thin lips, although this expression can vary culturally. A more dramatic expression of anger can be seen in the form of clenched jaws where the lips are thin and drawn back, exposing clenched teeth.

These two extreme forms of expressions are easier to read than others, but are automatic occurrences that can’t be controlled voluntarily. You should also be aware that not all signs of anger and sadness are universal, and vary culture to culture, which is important for diplomats to differentiate. The author presents plenty of cultural expressions and examples in his book.

When it comes to understanding fear and surprise, look at subtle clues in the eyes. This can be tricky as signs such as raised eyelids are ambiguous and can indicate both surprise and fear, and therefore needs to be looked at with an environmental lens.

Reading emotions takes lots of practice and you cannot ignore environmental elements such as what is happening around the person that you are watching. It is also difficult to know whether someone is expression emotions based on what is happening internally in their thoughts of externally based on what is happening around them, unless you look at the movement and direction of their eyes. However, people can work hard at hiding their emotions, especially when it comes to fear. But tension in the lower eyelids is something we can’t control, so be on the lookout for this. Our true emotions are always betrayed by subtle cues if we know what to look out for.

Our facial expression is not the only telltale sign of our emotions. Our tone of voice can also give away signs of how we truly feel. This is quite evident when you watch someone giving a speech on stage. Their body language may give out signs of confidence, but you may hear a slight quiver in their voice that betrays their fear and anxiety.

Under many circumstances, people will use a smile simply out of politeness but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are expressing any forms of joy. Again, you will need to examine the eye whether the muscles around the eye is activated that signifies a more positive emotional reaction. This is the real clue to a genuine smile. The circular muscle around the eye can’t be voluntarily contracted, so pat attention to check is someone’s smile is indeed real.

A useful skill for diplomats to learn about is the ability to detect lies and deception. Lies are difficult to detect but micro-expressions can lead the trained eye to the truth. Micro-expressions are tiny movements that are almost imperceptible which can escape the human eye under normal circumstances. We can’t always be watching people’s expressions in slow motion, frame-by-frame, like in the movies! But this is one of the best ways to catch lies and deception and requires intense training with the naked eye.

Being able to read facial expressions and detect emotions that people are feeling are highly useful skills for diplomats, but intense training is required to get up to an acceptable level. People watching in a café could be a good opportunity to observe people’s expressions and emotions without interference or awkward disruption. Not only can this lead to detecting lies and recognising when a smile is disingenuous, but recognising common emotions can lead to more empathy and better leadership.

“Emotions Revealed” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and international relations professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practical worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register