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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

'How are they feeling?' Your ability to read the emotions of others can impact your relationships

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Joyce He, Stéphane Côté

How good are you at understanding what other people are feeling, and how does this skill impact your relationships and your life satisfaction?

Joyce He, an assistant professor at UCLA and former PhD student at the Rotman School of Management, partnered with her former supervisor, professor Stéphane Côté, to explore this subject in a paper published in the journal Psychological Science.

Recruiting 1,126 people, the pair tested participants’ ability to read emotions by having them guess the emotions on 72 faces (you can try a similar test here). They found that people who are good at reading emotions reported having higher-quality, close relationships. “The ability to read emotions would allow you to engage in more behaviours that facilitate a higher relationship quality,” He explains. “For people with whom we have stronger relationships, we’re more attuned to their emotions.”

He and Côté’s study went a step further and reached out to five to 10 close contacts that study subjects provided, such as friends, family or classmates. Contacts of research participants who tested as being good at reading others’ emotions were more likely to say that they have a better relationship with the participant too.

But what happens if you aren’t good at reading people’s emotions? It’s not enough just to make people aware of their abilities, or lack thereof, by administering a test. He and Côté say that organizations can encourage employees to practice and learn the skill of empathetic accuracy through training.

While Côté believes that several training programs promise more than they deliver, he still has some tips and advice for people wanting to become more attuned to the emotions of others. “Pay attention to non-verbal signals,” Côté says. “Observe their face while they speak and their body language. If you’re looking elsewhere — on your phone, laptop or your notes, you’re going to miss a lot of information that people transmit.”

To determine whether someone’s ability to read emotions has improved, organizations should test again after training, or ask other team members who work with the individual about their ability to read emotions, as opposed to relying on an employee’s self-reported abilities. According to He and Côté’s study, only around 32 per cent of participants in their study were able to accurately estimate their emotion-reading abilities; around 20 per cent of subjects overestimated their capabilities, while 44 per cent underestimated. “It’s important to get some feedback because people might think they’re good at reading others,” Côté explains. “But if they never check those assumptions, they never know how good they are.”

The study also discovered that people who thought they were good at reading emotions reported a higher level of life satisfaction, regardless of their actual ability.

“We're motivated and have adapted to maintain this very positive view of ourselves,” He says. “Individuals who appear confident also receive benefits at work — if they're very confident, then we think that they're competent.”

It is possible that someone could convince themselves that they’re good at reading people’s emotions, regardless of whether that’s true or not. “People who hold a more positive self-view of their ability to read emotions are more likely to be seen as satisfied with their lives,” says He.

For managers or employees who know that they’re not good at reading people’s emotions, He suggests they encourage their peers and direct reports to verbally express their emotions, instead of just relying on non-verbal cues. “Managers can express their emotions themselves to prompt reciprocity. At the workplace, we might feel like we don’t want to verbally express how we’re feeling, but we need to break that image.”

Côté encourages people low in empathetic ability to be aware of their limitations too. “Use substitutes for your own capacity to read others,” he says. That could mean asking someone else on your team, or another manager who is better at reading emotions what they think. Côté also suggests distributing anonymous surveys to get team feedback. But these strategies shouldn’t be a replacement for improving your own empathetic accuracy. “Emotional intelligence matters. It’s something that managers should keep paying attention to.”

Joyce He is an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. 
Stéphane Côté is Geoffrey Conway Chair in business ethics, professor of organizational behaviour, director of the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics, and director of faculty recruiting at Rotman.