Listen, Don't Look: Why Your Ears Can Tell More Than Your Eyes

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When it comes to understanding how someone truly feels, it may be best to close your eyes and just listen, a new study shows.

Empathy allows people to identify the emotions, thoughts and feelings of others. To do this, people tend to not only focus on the exchange of words, but also a person's facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

But a new study from the American Psychological Association suggests that you could be trying to do too much. In fact, relying on a combination of vocal and facial cues may not be the most effective method for understanding the emotions or intentions of others, the study said. [5 Ways Your Emotions Influence Your World (and Vice Versa)]

"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,” study author Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, said in a statement. "But, in the presence of both will and skill, people often inaccurately perceive others' emotions."

The new research found that people who focus solely on listening to another person's voice — including what the person says and vocal cues such as pitch, cadence, speed and volume — were able to better empathize with that individual.  

In the study, the researchers examined how more than 1,800 individuals communicated with others. Some participants were askedto listen but not look at each other, while others were asked to look but not listen. And in some cases, the participants were allowed to both look and listen while communicating with one another.

In addition, some of the participants listened to a recorded interaction between two strangers that was read to them by a computerized voice lacking the usual emotional inflections of human communication.

On average, the study found participants were able to interpret the emotions of their partner more accurately when they just listened to the other person and didn't focus on facial expressions. Furthermore, listening to the computerized voice proved to be the least effective for accurately recognizing emotion.

"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," Kraus said in the statement. "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."

Although facial expressions can tell a lot about how someone is feeling, Kraus said that people are good at using facial expressions to mask their emotions. Also, watching and listening may reduce empathetic accuracy because more information isn't always better, and trying to do both at the same time can actually make it harder to understand the meaning behind a person's vocal inflection and facial expression.

"Listening matters," Kraus 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."

The findings were published today (Oct. 10) in the journal American Psychologist.

Originally published on Live Science. Contributor