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Filmmaker and actor Charlie Chaplin once said, “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.” As a man who produced smiles from audiences professionally, Chaplin’s advice is worth noting. But there’s more to a smile, or any facial expression, than meets the eye.

In Search Inside Yourself, SIYLI founder Chade-Meng Tan explains the concept of mindful listening, both formally and informally:

A beautiful way to practice mindfulness, which is almost guaranteed to improve your social life, is to apply mindfulness toward others for the benefit of others. The idea is very simple—give your full moment-to-moment attention to another person with a nonjudgmental mind, and every time your attention wanders away, just gently bring it back. It is just like the meditation we have been practicing, except the object of meditation is the other person.

You can practice mindful listening either formally or informally. The formal practice involves creating an artificial environment for one person to speak while another listens mindfully. The informal practice is to listen mindfully to another person and generously give him or her the space to speak during any ordinary conversation.

Deepening your capacity for empathy involves mindfulness on many different levels, so if you’re familiar with the book’s mindful listening exercises and have tried incorporating the practice into your work and personal relationships, maybe you’re ready to add another layer. While listening mindfully, watch a person’s facial expressions with equal attentiveness.
Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions, separates expressions in to two categories: macro and micro. According to Ekman, macro expressions usually last between a half second and 4 seconds. They often repeat and fit with the context of the conversation and the sound of a person’s voice (what you hear when listening mindfully). Micro expressions, on the other hand, are brief, usually lasting between 1/15 and 1/25 of a second. They often display a concealed emotion that isn’t apparent from listening only.

Although micro expressions are incredibly short, we’ve all seen them. It might be, for example, that flicker of disappointment before somebody puts on a happier face. But we miss many micro expressions simply because we’re not attuned to watching for them, and these real-time fluctuations in a person’s emotional state can be revealing.

Think of it as the difference between stargazing with a telescope or without one. Without a telescope we see the major constellations and planets (in this analogy, the macro expressions), but with a telescope a viewer can discover far more detail (the micro expressions). By learning to watch for micro expressions, we can build our own telescope to interpret the initial stages of an emotion, detect when an emotion is being concealed or even recognize if a person might be unaware of how he or she feels about something. Developing the ability to better notice a person’s expressions is a skill that can deepen our ability to empathize.

While there are books, some written by Paul Eckman, and other training tools to help people develop this skill, the first step begins with something already familiar to those practicing mindfulness listening. Be attentive. Listen mindfully. And also watch for micro expressions. What do see? Can you understand someone more deeply when you add this layer?