Can you tell who is compassionate just by looking at them?

According to a new study, yes.

Imagine this: you walk into the laboratory, and are a shown a series of 20-second video clips. In each clip, a different person is listening to someone else speaking. You can’t hear what the speaker is saying; there is no sound to the clip. But you’re told that the speaker is talking about a time when he or she suffered.

The researchers ask you to rate how compassionate the listener is, just by what you can see: his or her body language and facial expressions.

This study was conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who found that people agreed on who was a compassionate listener. The participants all seemed to rely on the same cues to assess compassion: more open body language, eye contact, head nods, and smiling.

I was excited to see this finding because I teach compassionate listening as a skill in the Stanford Compassion Training. Students in the training learn to deliberately do exactly what the participants in this study were using to assess compassion.

The first step is what I call “listening with the whole body.” This means literally tuning in to the person who is speaking. “Compassionate” body language includes:

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Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success.

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