The Power of Facial Expressions

By Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D.

We all can smile more. Hokey, you say? Consider the story of Nelson Mandela, the great South African leader. Apparently, he was a pretty dull speaker. What he did consistently in every setting was break out his huge smile.  This symbolized his lack of bitterness toward white South Africans and communicated hope and triumph to black voters. Mandela’s smile was his message.

Aren’t you drawn to those leaders with smiles? Sometimes in tough yoga poses, when I am straining in both a mental and physical
way, a wise teacher will put out the suggestion to smile. In a strange way, the act of moving those facial muscles seems to make the pose
easier. I don’t worry about the past or future; I stay in the present.

I was in a meeting the other day with a woman I admire. She is bright, insightful, and always pulls her weight. Unfortunately, in that
meeting, if looks could kill, she was committing murder. She sat there with a flat expression on her face the entire time. Smiling at appropriate times, such as when she met someone’s eye, would be a way for her to change the perception that she is unapproachable.  In addition to being aware of projecting a friendly image yourself, it can be a great advantage to become adept at reading faces.

Since Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink was published there has been more interest in the concept of micro expressions. He actually popularized the ideas of researcher Paul Ekman, whose book Emotions Revealedhelps the reader learn to recognize subtle facial expressions.  According to Ekman, even though we may have the innate ability to read these expressions, we need a little help in interpreting them. For introverts, becoming more competent at demonstrating your emotions and reading others’ facial expressions may be a way to close the perception gaps, reduce stress, and be present.

Ekman’s revealing test, which you can take before and after you read the book, demonstrates that you can get better at reading people by learning to interpret these partial or slight expressions. He even found that people across different cultures agreed on facial expressions. The author Daniel Pink believes that everyone should have a copy of Ekman’s book to navigate the world of business.  Leaders working with culturally diverse groups need to have the ability to read facial expressions. If you see a person smiling and you think they are not happy, you can probe or observe to better understand what is really going on. For example, last year in Europe I found myself with a group that was used to a more formal method of presentation than I was providing. They were pretty stone-faced.  As we developed a rapport, I noticed their faces relax, along with their bodies. I clued into their eyes and consciously read that their responsiveness was increasing. Learn to harness the power of facial expressions and and watch your productivity improve.

2 Responses to “The Power of Facial Expressions”

  1. David Ryback says:

    Great article. I like your up-to-date references on Ekman and Gladwell. This material is becoming better known as time goes by.

  2. Adam Waid says:


    Great post. I definitely agree that smiling makes someone seem more approachable.

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