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4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

Paul Ekman is the world’s most famous face-reader. Every psychology student knows his name and even beyond the field of psychology, Ekman and his work is recognized. Ekman dedicated his whole career towards the understanding of emotions and the associated patterns in the human face. Due to his accomplishments he not only belongs to ‘Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2009)’ but he is also one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

You might know his work through TV shows like Lie To Me, which is based on his studies, or you’ve read one of his famous books Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies, which teach you how to read faces and detect lies. Besides this he works with secret agencies like the FBI or CIA and advises movie companies like Pixar. The now 80-year old Ekman already met the Dalai Lama three times and talked with him about emotions.

Despite travelling and numerous responsibilities, he took some time to talk to me. As an aspiring psychologist I am more than familiar with his work and there are already dozens of high quality interviews about his research as well as several books. Therefore I decided to reach out to him and talk with him about more universal topics. More specifically we talked about: the importance of a mentor, how to actually find one, learning, reading, writing and what it takes to become an outstanding psychologist. From our conversation I learned the following things:

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1. The Importance of a mentor and how to find one

Ekman said it is definitely very important to have a good mentor and it had a decisive influence more than once on his own life and career. His mentors led him through critical moments and supported him with guidance. Ekman also listed a lot of different qualities he learned from them, not at least he learned excitement about research and the necessary care.

Though the process of finding a mentor seemed to be rather guided by luck or the right circumstances in Ekman’s case. Robert Berryman, one of his first mentors, was running a lab at his University and Silvan Tomkins, which was his most important mentor, reached in a similar paper at the same journal. The editor of the journal then connected Ekman and Tomkins and this resulted in a long friendship and mentorship between the two.

So obviously Ekman got his mentors rather by chance as opposed to consciously reaching out to them. What needs to be considered is, that fifty years ago it was definitely harder to contact or learn about possible mentors. Nowadays this is far easier, so you shouldn’t rely just on chance, but make an effort and reach out to possible mentors (check out this video to find out how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQPGQCeqB-I)

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2. You don’t have to have the same views as your mentor

While talking about his mentors and their impact on his life, Ekman mentioned several times that he either had different views, didn’t fully adapt a certain mindset or shook off the influence later (eg. the Skinerian influence of Berryman). Though he still said how important it was to have a mentor in order to learn things like persistence and perseverance as well as care, when it comes up to research. From Robert Berryman, Ekman especially learned about the excitement of research.

His mentors also encouraged him to take on new studies or pursue certain endeavors.  Silvan Tomkins for example led him to the decision to study cross cultural studies.

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So a lot of the learning that occurred was not simply on a content-level but rather on a meta-level. He rather learned about learning, attitudes and working habits. Tomkins even doubted that Ekman would be able to create a coding system of the face. Where in the end he succeeded (he invented the Facial Action Coding System- FACS). This shows mentors are tremendously important, but it is also necessary to free yourself and follow your own path at the right moment. Though finding this right moment, when to follow your own path and when to listen to your mentor is a hard task.

3. Learning, Reading, Writing

I asked Paul Ekman how he learns, reads and what percentage of his time is still dedicated towards learning new things. Often people are very surprised to hear, that even coryphes that accomplished everything you can think of and are already in their eighties still dedicate a significant amount of their time to mastering and learning new things. Same with Ekman, he still dedicates around 10% of his time to learning new things. A few years ago he even invested between 30-40% of his time to learning. This seems incredibly remarkable thinking of the fact that he is the greatest living-face reader, already in his 80ties and he still bothers with learning new things. But maybe this is exactly what helped him to accomplish all these things, the urge to learn and develop at all stages of life.

When he reads he always goes for hard copies to mark things. Also one effective way, as he figured out, to learn new things is writing about them. Since in order to write about something you need to have a deep understanding of the field.

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4. Four things to a great career

When I asked Ekman, “What differentiates good psychologists from those who make truly great contributions?” He answered simply that he didn’t know. Though he said there are four things that were essential to his own career.  These four things are: serendipity, perseverance, aim and timing. Serendipity is important because you sometimes need this lucky strike, where you just find something. In Ekman’s case somebody asked him a question that he hasn’t thought about himself and he didn’t know the answer to, but he thought it was interesting and followed through and researched it. At this point perseverance becomes important. You have to have the endurance to thoroughly research the question and master the necessary skills on the way (and apply deliberate practice as Cal Newport would call it – http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/04/08/deliberately-experimenting-with-deliberate-practice-looking-for-subjects-to-test-my-advice/ always talks about). Ekman further said that it is essential to have the right aim and he even emphasized that you should aim as high as you can. Though the last point is probably harder done than said, but while doing all these things the timing needs to be right.

Featured photo credit: kqedquest via flickr.com

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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