One of my best friends has intensity written all over his face. I remember the first moment I laid eyes on him. It was the first week of our first year of seminary. We were in a large lecture hall picking our seats to sit for an entrance exam testing our baseline biblical and theological knowledge. (The school issues the exact same test during the final months of your program. Hopefully you’ve vastly improved your score–showing you, and the accreditors, that the education actually did something.)

There he was, scanning the room with his knitted eyebrows and his pursed lips. I thought, “Woah, that guy is intense! I wonder what he’s thinking about.” Little did I know that he would become one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Fast forward several years. We’re attending the same church, and we’ve been asked to share the preaching at a midweek evening service for young adults. It’s my turn to preach, and it’s going pretty well, I think–but I’m not sure, because every time I look over at my friend, he’s showing me that intense, scrutinizing look. My brain instantly disassociates into several simultaneous tracks: (1) Rewind the tape–did I say something heretical? (2) Keep preaching–you’ll have to ask him later (3) “Secondly, this passage is teaching us….”

Afterward, I asked him how it went. He said it was great! I was confused. I tried to mimic his listening face and tell him that I thought for sure the sermon was going off the rails whenever I looked at him. He responded very graciously–a bit surprised that his listening face looked so intense–and compassionately said he’d be sure to give better visual feedback in the future. He knew that I was relying on him to coach me from the pew–especially in those early years of freshman ministry. From then on, I could look over at him and trust his face for reliable feedback.

I never forgot the lessons. First, I’m now sure that my listening face often betrays body language that is at odds with my actual thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I scowl when I should be smiling. It’s a concentrating look that can come across as overly skeptical, cold, and even angry.

Second, I don’t overly trust the faces of some of my listeners. I have to be confident enough in my material to deliver it without changing course midstream because I’ve misread someone’s face. Facial feedback is often unreliable.

Third, I look for the faces that I know tend to be more congruent with their thoughts. My wife, for example, won’t give me a confused look unless she’s actually confused. If Diedra looks confused, I might legit need to circle back and underline something that lacked clarity.

Finally, even if you never speak to large audiences–this problem of mismatched listening faces is real and it affects you. Only professional actors are able to perfectly convey their thoughts through their faces–and they had to train in order to be able to do it. The rest of us will have to patiently work to improve our body language, and be patient and gracious clarifiers when we inevitably misread one another.