Watch Netflix on mute.
The next time you kick back with House of Cards, turn the sound off and guess what’s going on between the characters. Then rewind the scene to see if you nailed it. Choose a respected drama rather than a comedy or reality TV. “This trick works only if the show or film stars excellent actors who understand the subtleties of nonverbal language,” says psychologist David Caruso.
Read great novels.
According to a 2013 study published in Science, people who read literary fiction display higher levels of empathy and ability to understand others' beliefs and emotions than do those who prefer nonfiction or breezy novels. In renowned works of fiction, you're exposed to richer character development and a deeper exploration of their inner lives, say the study authors.
Ask for feedback.
The only way to know for sure that you’ve accurately read someone’s demeanor is to check in with her. Once you think you’ve got a read on someone, ask questions like “You seem pleased. Is that right?” or “Did you really agree with my presentation?” Be pleasant and low-key when asking and you’re more likely to receive a candid response, says Caruso.
Get some sleep.
Not only will you be less bleary-eyed and grumpy—making it easier to pick up on social cues and behave empathetically—but you’ll also have more time to dream, which can deepen your ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. “One of the most important functions of dreaming is it allows us to experiment with social situations that we have not yet experienced,” says psychologist Nicholas Humphrey.
Peer into the windows to the soul.
Eyes can reveal a range of feelings. To see how good you are at discerning jealousy, arrogance, and other emotions just by looking at a person’s eyes, take a free online quiz (part of an ongoing study by Harvard University researchers).