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Entries in perception (1)


The Perceptive Heart: Reading people's faces

Image courtesy, virtual-lecture-hall.com

A perceptive person can read your face.  [Note:  Though I'm writing to adults, I've used pictures of infants' faces because their expressions can't be faked; rather than those pictures using actors who are trying to mimic emotional expressions.]

Viewing without seeing
His face bore the rigid gaze of a department store manikin. Eyes open, but not registering. This person across the table from me had been looking at me for an hour as we talked; but I realized that he couldn't see me. There was nothing wrong with his eyes and nothing blocking his view.  Yet I felt no more understood than if I was sitting across from a crash-test dummie.

The reason I knew this was because his facial expressions never changed to match mine. There was almost no emotional connection between us because his face didn't mirror my face. There was no reflection of my pain registering in his eyes.  No sense that he felt what I felt.  Though I had spent an hour with this person, I felt no closer to him.

Reading another's face well makes them feel connected and safe.
Decoding another's facial expressions is a critical step in connecting more deeply with them:

[Research] explained why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe, and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.  It helped us understand why focused attunement with another person can shift us out of disorganized or fearful states.  - The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Besselvan der Kolk, M.D.


The face cannot lie. The muscles in the face respond reflexively, automatically to our internal emotional states; especially facial gestures called "micro-expressions:"

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced. Unlike regular pro-longed facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.  1  


Our faces hold the clues to our crime scenes.  Dr. Dan Allender, respected Christian psychologist and author, says that each of us is a crime scene. Harm was done to us. It is embedded in our memories and stored in our bodies. So as we "investigate" the harm done to those we care about, we do so knowing that we are walking into a crime scene. Therefore, we walk into each other's stories with humility and honor.

What will their faces tell us? 

  • Are their eyes widened with fear?

  • Is the curve of their mouth downturned in sadness and loss?

  • Does their brow say, "I'm really angry; but need you to know that underneath the anger is a fear you'll abandon me, too."

  • Does their face say, "I'm struggling with trust right now?"

Responding to their face:

Once you've deciphered a person's facial expression to know what their emotional state likely is, you can serve as a mirror to their soul.  "When the message we receive from another person is 'You're safe with me,' we relax. If we're lucky in our relationships, we also feel nourished, supported, and restored as we look into the face and eyes of the other."2  

Connecting with the person across from you can be as simple as, 

I noticed you look really frightened.  If you feel safe, can you tell me more?

It looks like you feel angry right  now.  Is there something that has hurt you?  Is it possible you're not feeling safe right now?

You seem joyful today.  How can I celebrate with you?

Note:  Hold your assumptions lightly and ask the Spirit to lead. Remember, you could be walking into a crime scene; and that will require discernment. 


Final thought?  Is it possible that Jesus is really good at reading your face, mirroring your emotions, and offering you a kind response that says, "I get you."?




1.    "Guide to Reading Microexpressions," Vanessa van Edwards, author and behavioral investigator  

2.   The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.