You might be thinking, well I know that answer. After all common sense tells us that we don’t function the same without sleep. While that is true and simple on the surface, how sleep deprivation specifically impacts communication may surprise and inform you.
To begin with, when we lose sleep it impairs our ability to read happiness and sadness in those around us, yet our ability to interpret emotions like disgust, fear and anger remained intact. If we think a moment about what this could translate to in an interaction, it might be that we would be reacting to anger but not realizing that a partner’s unhappiness is behind it. One without the other leaves us with an incomplete picture on which to base an assumption or conclusion, which definitely causes problems in a relationship.
The research led by a University of Arizona psychologist and published in the journal Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms found these differences in what we can and cannot recognize when we don’t get enough sleep. They concluded that the difference may be in how we are wired to recognize primitive emotions in order to help ensure immediate survival due to the possibility of danger associated with those emotions. However social emotions are not tied to immediate survival—yet are certainly important to the health of our relationships and happiness. Our evolution has not gone that far yet, so we need to rely on other things to ensure better social outcomes.
This subtle awareness is tied to EQ (emotional intelligence), and indeed some people have more of an innate ability, but others can raise theirs with awareness and practice—and apparently, getting enough sleep.
The 54 participants in this study were asked to read faces only—and nonverbal communication involves so much more. Therefore it’s likely that when sleep deprived, our ability to read the overall nonverbal messages of others is significantly impaired. What this boils down to socially is that we could be misreading people and responding inappropriately to them based on our false conclusions about how they are thinking and feeling.
As a couples’ therapist, I see this miscommunication a lot. Maybe I need to focus more on the importance of sleep, especially before sitting down to problem-solve or have a difficult discussion about something. If you find that you are often misinterpreting people at work, in your family, in your social and intimate relationships—pay attention to how much quality sleep you are getting. If it is less than 7 hours a night, consider taking steps to improve that. It may make a big difference in helping you be a better communicator.