October 23, 2017

When Assessing Emotions, Listen, Don’t Look

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

It was written all over his face.” That’s what we say when we think someone’s expression has told a truer tale than their words. It is the kind of statement that shows that we naturally pay a great deal of attention to the face when we are trying to assess emotion or credibility. But maybe we pay too much attention. According to research reviewed in a recent post in Psyblog, it is actually the tone of voice and not the face that does the better job of accurately conveying emotion.

The study (Kraus, 2017) shows people actually read emotions more accurately when listening and not when looking at faces. Over the course of five experiments involving over 1,772 participants, Dr. Michael Kraus looked at the ability to accurately empathize under three conditions: while looking at and listening to a subject, while just looking, or while just listening. The third condition won out, and accuracy was best when the research participants were just listening and not when they were just watching, or listening and watching at the same time. Similar results have been found in other studies. But why would less information be an advantage? Kraus suspects it is because people are better at hiding or faking emotions via the face rather than the voice, and listening and watching at the same time is cognitively complex, which causes the more reliable signs in the voice to be outweighed or missed. “Actually considering what people are saying and the ways in which they say it can,” Kraus notes, “lead to improved understanding of others at work or in your personal relationships.” It can also lead to better client assessment and witness preparation, as I’ll share in this post.

For the Witness

One area where we might be overemphasizing appearance is in the preparation of witnesses. The common use of video-recording in preparation sessions might contribute to this to the extent that it prioritizes appearance. This line of research reminds us that when using recordings and providing feedback to witnesses, we should pay equal or greater attention to tone of voice. One practice I will sometimes use for that purpose is to ask the witness to close their eyes, just listen to themselves testifying, and report on what messages they are getting from tone of voice: Do they sound clear, confident, and helpful or do they sound hostile, irritated, and defensive? Sure, the jury will look at appearance too, but vocal tone matters as well, maybe more.

For the Juror

Of course, the juror sees as well as hears the witness. Aside from witnesses who might testifying wearing an Islamic face veil, we are unlikely at any time in the near future to have witnesses testifying behind screens, though that is a suggestion made in a recent article on downplaying demeanor in testimony evaluation (O’Regan, 2017). What is more likely is that jurors will continue to evaluate witnesses as they typically have, focusing on appearance but implicitly relying a great deal on tone as well. Where it makes a difference, you might even suggest to the jurors, “As she testifies, listen to her voice and ask yourself whether you hear certainty or doubt,” or “As you listen to my client, you might find that what he isn’t willing to say out loud about his loss will nonetheless come through in his voice.”

For the Attorney

For attorneys who speak in front of judges and juries, it also pays to pay attention to voice. A good technique I’ve recommended before is to practice by making an audio-recording of one’s own speech. It not only helps you familiarize yourself with the content, but it can also help you address a boring or monotone vocal style.

Finally, the idea of paying attention to emotion in tone of voice is simply a good reminder for the attorney in talking with and understanding the client. Pay attention to what they say, but also pay attention to how they say it, with an ear tuned toward the confidence as well as the emotional content behind their words.

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Other Posts on Nonverbal Communication: 

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Kraus, M. W. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. American Psychologist72(7), 644.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited.

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