As a communication coach, one of the most interesting challenges I was given recently was to help a leader who didn’t inspire trust. When I asked, “Why?” I was told, “There’s something about his face—nobody trusts him.”
So when I met my client, I looked at his face. He was remarkably good-looking. So what was the problem? He had great eye contact. He had no twitches, no grimaces—what was the problem? I kept looking and looking, and finally I noticed: He had no facial expression—no affect—when he talked, and when he listened. He had no facial expressions. He was totally hidden. No wonder he didn’t inspire trust.
Why is trust so important? A 2017 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that companies where employees trust their leaders reported 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, and 106% more energy at work. So building trust is not simply nice, building trust is a necessity.
Not surprisingly, I have many clients who come to me for help with how to inspire trust immediately—particularly in today’s virtual, hybrid, big-hall meetings with their supersize-screen projections.
Here are some tips I give my clients to help them have facial expressions that inspire trust.
Focus on staying in the present
When you’re speaking, ensure your mind doesn’t gravitate toward what you want to say versus what you’re actually saying, out loud.
You can say, “I’m so excited to be here,” while you may be thinking, “I wish I weren’t here. I wish I wasn’t so nervous. I wish I had practiced more.”
If you think about those feelings, your facial expressions will reflect those feelings—not your words. What you’re saying and what you’re showing don’t match. In other words, don’t be a complete phony and try to concentrate on the task at hand.
You have to learn to focus on what you’re saying. I once heard an interviewer ask an aerial skier, who had just twisted and turned in the air magnificently and won the championship, “What do you think about when you’re in the air?”
He responded: “I think about what I’m doing.”
When you speak to win trust, you have to think about what you’re saying—not what you think about what you’re saying.
Allow yourself to have entire experiences
You can’t just move your lips. You can’t just raise your eyebrows. You can’t just crinkle your forehead—not unless you’re a movie star in closeup with just the right lighting and just the right camera angles.
You’re not acting a movie role. You’re in the real word, so you have to have full expressions, not parts.
So how do you have whole expressions? You have to allow your feelings to show. That client of mine who didn’t have expressions—why not? Because his father had a traumatic illness and was in a vegetative state for years at home, and he had to learn to hide his feelings. For years he had to disassociate, to have blank expressions, consciously or not—as a survival solution. But being blank is not a solution for building trust. You have to have whole expressions, you have to show whole feelings.
Put your face to work
There are 43 muscles in your face. Like any other muscles in your body, if you don’t use them, you lose them. If you don’t use your facial muscles, you will lose the ability for your face to reflect your feelings. So practice face squeezing, where you pull all your facial muscles together. Try opening your mouth wide, explore shifting your jaw from side to side. You don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror. Close your eyes. Feel the movement. Twitch, squeeze, open, close. You have to loosen those 43 muscles in your face to allow your facial expressions to come out naturally.
Today, there is much debate about how accurately people read facial expressions. According to researchers who analyzed the kinetics of these 43 muscles in the human face and compared these movements to a person’s emotions, they found that attempts to detect or define emotions based on a person’s emotions were almost always wrong. They reported that facial expressions are always seen in context and cultural background.
However, I am convinced, after 42 years of coaching, that by having natural facial expressions, you will build trust because your audience will see your connections to your message, feel your connections to your message, and most importantly, believe your connections to your message.
Remember, trust is a feeling, not an algorithm. Facial expressions make that feeling stronger.