Psychologist Paul Ekman’s research revealed that contempt is one of seven universal emotions. How can you tell the body language look of Contempt? Pay close attention and watch for any asymmetric gestures or expressions (e.g., smirks, frowns, shrugs, closed body gestures). Natural, truthful, and open gestures tend to be more symmetric.
Eyes: may be upward in an eye roll gesture; sideways in a disapproving look; or squinted to block out the object of contempt
Mouth / Lips: Mouth tight with one lip raised and asymmetrical. The asymmetrical look may appear fast in a micro-expression, with the individual trying to correct the look with a forced or insincere smile with pursed tight lips. The lips may also be pushed forward in a sneer.
Nose: wrinkles may appear, similiar to the look of disgust
Chin: may be raised in a superior position
Arms: may be crossed in a closed, blocked, or shielding body gesture, or in an asymmetrical fashion
Hands: may be holding the chin or the face in an unapproving manner
Torso: likely to be leaning or facing away from the object of contempt in an attempt to distance the body
The look of contempt is a red-flag that the conversation, interaction, business negotiations, or interpersonal relationship has taken a turn for the worst. If contempt continues long-term, this may indicate that the business deal or relationship is approaching the point of no-return. According to psychologist John Gottman, marital contempt is the leading predictor (along with criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling) for divorce.
The best intervention is to actively listen during conversations and observe non-verbal body language communication in order to catch any hints of disagreement early.
When you observe any closed body gesture, non-chalantly address the issue by getting the other person to open up his/her body by offering a diversion item (e.g., a pen to hold, document to review, drink, etc) to redirect attention and the body to a more open position. Suggest some kind of movement (e.g., stand up, move to another area, or take a walk), or ask open ended questions.
Co-Founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D and Helen LeKelly Hunt, Ph.D emphasize the importance of mirroring, validating, and empathizing in interpersonal communications. Try to understand and show genuine curiosity or interest in the other’s perspective. When we see things from another’s perspective, we not only increase our horizons to another person’s logic and experience, but we also improve our interpersonal connection on a deeper, more meaningful level. Although we may not agree with the alternative perspective, it makes perfect sense to the other person. Remember…Truth, similar to beauty, is in the eye of the beholder!
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- Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed, second edition: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
- Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (2003). Unmasking the face. Cambridge, MA: Malor Books.
- Gottman, J. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Hendrix, H. and LeKelly Hunt, H. (2005). Imago relationship therapy: Perspectives on theory. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.