Reading Emotions

Along with being able to recognize our own feelings and think about them, it is critical to success in life for us to also correctly recognize and interpret emotions in others. Adults in sales, management, customer service, politics, parenting, teaching, leadership, engagement and marriage, and people in so many other people-related professions will need to depend on their skill of reading people correctly in order to succeed. Most often, people “out there” don’t speak of their emotions. We have to be able to read their non-verbal cues to know what they are feeling.

For example:

  • A teacher will be able to read the non-verbal cues of her student who is just not getting the lesson and she will skillfully switch her approach to try something different until she can see the lights go on for the child.
  • A parent will read non-verbal cues in his child to learn that she’s on the verge of frustration in what she’s trying to do. He will know when to step in and lend a hand or make a helpful suggestion.
  • A skillful guy will read non-verbal cues that tell him when he’s said something that embarrassed his girlfriend, and he will be able to immediately do something to make her feel at ease.
  • A salesman in a store will be able to pick up on subtle cues from a customer that now is not the time to push for a sale. He will know to leave his name should they need help, but to back off and let the customer browse.
  • A husband will read his wife’s non-verbal cues and know when she needs him to express encouragement or love…or when she might need a helping hand.
  • A manager will pick up on non-verbal cues that tell him when his employees are motivated and happy to work and when there is something that is making the work environment a dreaded place to be. He will be able to do something to improve the work environment.
  • A detective (or anyone in law enforcement) must be able to read people accurately in order to be successful. What non-verbal cues give away the fact that a person is prevaricating? What are the little cues that lead to solving a case?
  • A child who can read non-verbal cues and respond appropriately will be the most confident, likeable and successful of students.


Empathy lies at the core of accurately reading others. At first, the child mimics emotions in others. If he hears another baby crying, frequently he will cry as well. At about a year old, and once he begins to see himself as separate from others, he will try and soothe another upset child. By the time a child is two, she will be able to recognize that her feelings and those of others are distinct. She knows she feels calm and happy, but she recognized that the other child is sad or afraid and will make attempts to comfort him. Later in childhood, the child begins to realize that some distresses are chronic and the motivation for working for social justice or social betterment for others begins.

Empathy for others will motivate a child to stick up for a friend, to befriend a new child in the classroom, to stop and help a child who stumbled and fell during recess, and to offer to walk the injured child to the school nurse for help.

What is happening in the brain itself is that the pathways between the amygdala and the visual cortex are strengthening and elaborating. The emotional cues a child reads in another person are conveyed to his emotional brain and he then can consider how to respond to what he’s seeing.

Role of parents:

Experts say that when we mirror back to our little babies the emotions they are feeling, their brains actually become wired for empathy. Babies acquire the capacity to feel for others and read their nonverbal emotional cues if they themselves are affirmed in their own emotions. By “mirroring” or affirming, I mean showing delight when the baby is delighted, feeling sad when he is sad, laughing with him… it is as though you are a mirror that shows the baby what each of his emotions looks like on someone else.

Several years ago I knew a toddler who was an absolute terror. She bit, yanked hair, slapped, shoved and generally terrorized her playmates. She was indifferent to children she made cry. It puzzled me until I saw her with her mother one afternoon. When the little girl fell down, got hurt, and began to cry, rather than pick her up and soothe her, the mother laughed and said roughly, “Oh, stop your crying. You’re not hurt!” On another occasion I saw the mother become angry when her daughter had stomach flu and threw up. This toddler was missing out on the early experiences that would hard wire her brain for empathy.

A tiny tot who does not have the pathways laid in his brain for empathy could grow up to be a 2nd grader who roughly pushes another child out of the way so he can climb on the monkey bars, or who laughs when someone is hurt or humiliated. That type of child does not endear himself to his classmates. He might be the class bully; at the very least he will not be regarded as a class favorite.

A tiny tot who does not learn empathy could grow into a woman who seems completely indifferent to the difficult situation of a co-worker and who leaves the impression that his plight does not matter, or who displays indifference to her own children’s feelings.

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