One of the more interesting findings in emotional intelligence research is that people who read emotional cues in others are generally good at reading their own emotional states and vice-verse—those who read themselves well are likely to read others well also. Conversely, an inability to read either oneself or others signals the corresponding inability. These findings are so well-established that most EI assessments only test a person’s ability to read external cues—knowing that the results will apply to that person’s ability to read their own emotions as well.

While this correlation may seem logical, we know that the experience of emotions is often different from what that experience looks like from the outside. A number of explanations have been offered for this linked phenomenon—perhaps it is simply a matter of having the vocabulary to describe emotions generally, or having actually experienced the emotions in question.  


A new study sheds some light. “Embodied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Dampening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotional Perception Accuracy” by David T. Neal, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, and Tanya L. Chartrand, a professor of marketing and psychology at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, reports that not only do those who have had Botox injections not express facially what they are feeling, they also have very little idea what others are feeling as well.


According to the study, an observer unconsciously mimics another person’s expression, and it is the experience of feeling that facial expression that leads the person back to understanding the emotion that produces such an expression. In the experiment, women with Botox injected 2 weeks prior to the assessment were significantly less accurate at decoding both positive and negative facial expressions than those who had been injected with a facial filler that did not impact muscle function.


In a second related experiment, participants with a gel on their face (similar to a facial mask) that required them to work their muscles harder to make facial expressions could more accurately identify emotions in others.


What does this mean for us in law practice?


Lawyers consistently score lower than the general population on emotional intelligence. The base of emotional intelligence requires the ability to “read” emotions—which information is then analyzed as to how to best manage those emotions. If the underlying “read” is not accurate, then we are caught in a “garbage in, garbage out” situation that makes any analyses and management decisions (skills that lawyers are not deficient in) nonetheless invalid.


The stoic lawyer who does not express emotions may be the very paradigm of the inaccurate reader—unable to express these emotions him/herself, s/he cannot identify the emotions others are feeling.


The good news here is that a short intervention may well be all that is needed to improve the situation—while two weeks can dampen one’s ability to express and therefore read others’ emotions, a similar period of concentrated training in expression can result in a significant improvement.


As part of our high-potential coaching program, we are able to offer that training to your best business development and leadership prospects.