Our primary form of communication is verbal communication. However, we speak just as often through nonverbal communication or body language. The way we sink into our chairs, cross our arms, and look down at the ground all communicate negative feelings—those of deflation, unease, and discomfort. Now, we can also communicate positive feelings without muttering a word: open palms show openness, eye contact says confidence, and a smile communicates happiness. As of late, an emphasis has been placed on paying attention to what you’re communicating as well as what your peers are communicating through body language—as you just may pick up on something that isn’t communicated with words. However, an emerging study published in American Psychologist suggests we shift our focus back to verbal communication—except instead of listening just to what someone is saying, we should pay attention to how they’re saying it.

To test the power of both verbal and nonverbal communication, the research team held five experiments with over 1,800 participants. In each experiment, these participants were tasked with either interacting with another individual or analyzing an interaction between two individuals. Some participants listened without watching, others watched but didn’t listen, and some watched and listened at the same time. Additionally, one more experiment was introduced: participants listened to a computerized voice which read a scripted interaction, which served to take the emotional aspect of human communication out of the equation.

The researchers found that in all five experiments, those who just listened to a given interaction were more accurately able to identify the emotions experienced by others; the only exception was when participants listened to the computerized voice, which brought about the worst accuracy. These findings suggest that “relying on a combination of vocal and facial cues, or solely facial cues, may not be the best strategy for accurately recognizing the emotions or intentions of others,” says author Michael Kraus, PhD, of Yale University.

Because a great emphasis has been placed on body language and facial cues in research dealing with emotional recognition, Kraus believes that this study’s findings pave the way for a new kind of research: “I think when examining these findings relative to how psychologists have studied emotion, these results might be surprising,” he says. “Many tests of emotional intelligence rely on accurate perceptions of faces. 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.”

One question that emerged is why would solely listening be better than listening and paying attention to one’s facial cues? Kraus says there are two possible answers: one, we’ve grown accustomed to masking our emotions with facial expressions; and two, more isn’t always better—performing two different tasks simultaneously, such as listening and watching, hinders performance. However, one thing is clear and that’s that listening is important, Kraus determines.

Based on this research, it’s important that we focus most of our concentration on listening during a conversation—not on watching where they place their hands, if they cross their arms, or what their facial expressions are saying. Doing so will allow us to better detect and understand how someone is really feeling.

Source: American Psychological Association. “Best Way to Recognize Emotion in Others: Listen.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 10 October 2017.

Original Research: The study will appear in American Psychologist.