You know how when you hear a song you love, that it seems like the music is speaking to your soul, and that the song was created especially for you?
There’s perhaps a scientific reason as to why musical artists are able to so easily tap into our emotions.
A study conducted in 2009 found that musicians are better able to process the emotion in sound in comparison to non-emotions.
Emotions aren’t found in the words themselves, but in the way the sound is communicated, the tone of voice, says Lois Svard from The Musician’s Brain.
“A mother knows, from the sound of her baby’s cry, what emotions are being communicated by her infant. The baby could be scared, angry, or hungry.”
Similarly, sarcasm is often linked to a person’s tone of voice, says Svard. For example, the phrase “Well done!” can convey true praise, “or it can be a way to ridicule someone who just made a mistake. It all depends on how you say it.”
Some people are naturally attuned to the emotions of others (they don’t have to be a mother or a musician).
Here are five examples that you’re able to tune into someone else’s emotions on a whole other level.
1) You are an emotionally-engaged listener
There’s listening and then there’s listening.
Actively listening is when all of your senses are tuned into what the person is saying. Your eyes are locked with theirs, your body is turned towards theirs, and perhaps you’re even leaning forward, hanging onto their every word.
You also don’t interrupt them when they’re speaking, says the team at the British Health Foundation.
“Being interrupted is frustrating for the other person—it gives the impression that you think you’re more important, or that you don’t have time for what they have to say,” BHS explains.
This means that if you’re a naturally quick thinker or speaker, you force yourself to slow down so that the other person can express themselves.
A pause or a few seconds of silence doesn’t mean that you have to jump in with something. Letting the other person speak will make it easier for you to understand their message and what they’re trying to say both verbally and non-verbally.
As a journalist, I know that a pause, hesitation, or even a split-second of silence can speak volumes. It can give context to what the person is saying or trying to say. This is usually the part where their emotions are emphasized—sometimes even on full display.
To be tuned into another person’s emotions, you also have to listen without judgment and without jumping to conclusions, BHS says.
If you start reacting emotionally to what’s being said, then it can get in the way of listening to what is said next, and what the other person is also saying with their emotions. “Try to focus on listening. Equally, don’t assume that you know what’s going to be said next.”
One skill I’ve learned on the job is to truly keep myself out of the other person’s response. This means I don’t start planning what I’m going to say next.
“You can’t listen and prep what to say next,” BHS says. I would add that doing this makes you miss out on a follow-up question that’s vital to understanding the essence of what they’re saying.
It can also make you miss an important follow-up question that could be vital to understanding them.
This is the reason why therapists do more listening than they do talking and they’re never in a hurry to get to their next question.
2) You don’t probe with “prosecutorial” questions
People who are incredibly attuned to the emotions of others tend to ask empathetic questions that come from their own high intuition level, says Rick Hanson, PhD.
Emotionally-attuned questions include:
- Were you feeling _____?
- Did you want ______?
- Did you feel pulled between ______ and ____?
Being emotionally tuned into someone means being respectful and not persuasive or prosecutorial, says Hanson.
“Don’t muddle empathy with asserting your own views or needs. Do that part later.”
3) You actually absorb their emotions like an “empath”
If you’re able to actively listen and also take in the emotions of other people, then you could very well be an empath, says Crystal Raypole of Healthline.
An empath is “a person who is highly attuned to the energies and emotions of those around them,” Raypole explains. “Empaths are said to feel what others are feeling so deeply that they ‘absorb’ or ‘take on’ the emotions themselves, often at the expense of their own emotional well-being.”
This is why it’s important to try and have filters to protect yourself from excessive stimulation from the other person
Judith Orloff, MD, who is a pioneer in the field, writes in her book The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, that the energies and emotions empaths take on from other people can be “good, bad, or something in between.”
Raypole says that people tend to tell empaths all their problems. While this may seem like a positive thing, caring deeply can make it hard to tell people when you start to feel overwhelmed.
“It’s important to find a balance,” she says. “Without boundaries, unchecked kindness and sensitivity can pave the way for ‘emotion dumps’ that may be too much for you to handle at once.”
It’s no wonder then that empaths can be especially vulnerable to manipulation and toxic behaviors, she says.
“You may have a deeper understanding of the pain fueling their behavior and want to offer support. But it’s important to remember you can’t do much for someone who isn’t ready to change.”
4) You also pick up on what they’re not saying
In observing myself, I’ve noticed that my hand tends to go to my ear when I’m a bit anxious about something.
Understanding someone’s body language is a huge part of trying to understand what they’re saying.
Are they turned away from when they’re talking? Does this mean they’re uncomfortable? Or do you get a sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming? Are they covering their mouth when they talk? Could this mean they’re lying?
As a journalist, it’s important for me to pick up on the emotions of the people I’m interviewing because it adds a great deal of nuance to what they’re saying.
This is especially significant for profile interviews where the story’s aim is to capture the essence of a person. For these interviews, it’s vital to either speak in person or via Zoom so that I am able to see their expressions (smile, grimace, frown), what their eyes are saying, gestures, and more.
Subtle nuances can also help us read between the lines. Do they clear their throat when they’re nervous? Or when they’re trying to come up with something to say (meaning they’re hiding something)?
5) Being in tune with your own intuition helps you gain emotional insight from others
Those who are attuned to other people’s emotions are able to do so because they are tapped into their own intuition.
“Open up to your own gut feelings, which could be resonating with those of other people,” says Hanson.
So what does this look like?
Emotionally attuned people ask themselves what they would be feeling if they were them. They don’t just put out themselves in the other person’s shoes, they also tune into their thoughts, memories, expectations, needs, and intentions, explains Hanson.
Then they form some hypotheses—instinctive but emotionally-educated observations—about what is really going on with the other person.
Emotionally attuned people also rely on their instincts about what is okay to ask and what question might make the other person shut down completely.
Being attuned to other people’s emotions is a gift best used wisely…
Even though an empathetic person possesses a wonderful ability to be attuned to other people’s emotions and sense when they are troubled, that doesn’t mean that they should always do something, says empath coach Carol Millar.
“Others may need to reflect on their own feelings, their own situation as part of their core lesson.”
Millar says that restraint through self-awareness is necessary to avoid straining your sensitive system. “Healthy boundaries are a necessity…as without them you can hamper your own progress. [So] remain cognizant of your emotions.”