One of the great joys for me professionally is when science and research finally catch up to what has been passed on and taught anecdotally for decades. While it has always made sense to me that managers, leaders, sales professionals and others who seemed to “read” others the best were the most successful, now there’s new research to back it up.

The research

In a recently released study from the University of Bonn (Germany), Dr. Gerhard Blickle of the Department of Psychology and his team found that the capacity to accurately read emotions varied widely in the sample of 142 working adults. Those who could most accurately read the expressions of others and match them to specific emotional states benefitted in two ways.  First, they “are considered more socially and politically skilled than others by their colleagues. Their supervisors also attribute better social and political skills to these people”, reported Dr. Blickle. This by itself should be reason for anyone trying to hone their management and leadership skills to pay more attention to the emotional needs of others.

While not surprising, there was also a second finding. Those who scored the highest at accurately reading others’ emotions earned significantly higher incomes. This was after gender, age, training, weekly working hours, and hierarchical position in their respective companies were factored in. To me, this suggests that most employers are willing to pay a premium for employees who can assess and have the healthiest emotional impact on their colleagues, whether peers or subordinates.

The unanswered question

If there was a gap in the study’s findings, it was that there is no clear evidence (yet) as to whether people can actually improve their “emotional intelligence” competencies and get better at reading and appropriately responding to the emotional needs of others. Therefore, the researchers conclude, more attention should be paid to hiring managers and leaders who have this quality to begin with.

Having studied the science behind emotional and social intelligence for almost two decades, I think I’m on pretty solid ground in saying that most of us can indeed improve our ability to read others…if we really want to. While our native wiring for empathy probably does vary widely from person to person (and, more generally, between men and women), human beings as a species are remarkably well suited for this task. In fact, as I’ve written earlier, this capability is partially why we rose to the top of the food chain ahead of all other species. Being able to read each others’ emotions (and predict intentions) has allowed us to collaborate at hunting, gathering, building shelter and protecting ourselves better than any other species in our planet’s history.

Moving the needle

Just as we can improve in our ability to perform physical tasks, our brains are just as “plastic” and adaptable at learning and improving at mental tasks. The trick to better reading others is simply to practice. But here’s the difficult part. To really practice reading and helpfully responding to the emotional needs of others, you have to first be motivated to help them. And getting to that place means shifting your own agenda away from a focus on you and what you need to others and what they need.

Try this

If you feel so inclined, here is a simple technique for improving your ability to read emotions.

  • Once or twice each day, look for opportunities to have a 3-5 minute conversation with one of your colleagues, friends, customers or family members during which you make understanding them and their needs your sole purpose. This may NOT be easy, at least initially!
  • Proactively try to minimize any potential sources of distraction that may pull you away from focusing on them (mobile devices, laptops, etc.).
  • Look for both points of connection (things you can relate to) with the person you’re speaking with as well as trying to uncover something unique about their situation.
  • Try to identify one small thing you can do to assist that person…and do it.

Becoming better at reading the emotions of others is as much about heart-set as it is skill-set. When we genuinely become interested in helping others as much or more than helping ourselves, the necessary skills actually come online for us pretty easily. And if this helps us to earn more at the same time, then so be it. I think that’s referred to as karma.