16 years and counting.

By Herman Ilgen, december 2019

Origins: Parents and practice

This did not start as a planned road towards a now unique method and design. As long as I can remember I have been interested in understanding people and their behavior. And just as long I have been imbued with a sense of respect for people regardless of who they are (thanks to my mother). And with a commitment to clarity and integrity of ideas (thanks to my father).

So, in my life I have always been searching for more understanding and real knowledge about people and their interactions. This search was not so much out of curiosity as out of the conviction that more understanding will lead to more respect and acceptance amongst people.

I have been a negotiator and mediator for several decades. And because of my experience I have seen many examples of how things go wrong when there is a lack of understanding. But fortunately I have also seen in numerous cases what can be achieved between people and parties when understanding grows. It has always been my dream to contribute to this understanding.

1996-2003: Discovering a new phenomenon

In the late 90’s I was a negotiator and HR Director in a large company. By chance I met American psychologist Barry Goodfield, who was married to one of my colleagues.  He attracted my attention with his ideas about information in facial movements. Would this provide new insights in what makes people “tick”?

His central tenet was that every individual has a Nonverbal Leak: a number of facial micro-movements that occur in a set sequence (3 to 10 steps) when the individual experiences tension or stress. And that the individual would show this Nonverbal Leak repetitively.

©Goodfield Institute 2003

So, when I left the company and started my own enterprise I followed up by getting training by Barry Goodfield. Although his trainings were primarily directed at educating psychotherapists (like he is himself) I got even more inspired. But I soon saw his limitations as well. He was so focused on using his insights in individual therapy that he could not give me useful information about aspects I was interested in as a professional negotiator and mediator. Like for example how (facial) nonverbal interaction takes place and influences both interaction partners.

His interpretations of specific micro-movements in the face were not always consistent and held a therapeutic connotation. E.g. eyebrows up and upper eyelids up: shock; white underneath the iris: trance; eyes closing/blinking: denial. He assumed that some of the nonverbals were linked to what happens to an infant in the birth process (“birth traumas”).

This all left me somewhat puzzled, but still fascinated.

2003-2010: Working with Barry Goodfield, exploring literature, developing my own ideas

To answer my questions about the Goodfield Method I searched for more clarity and scientific foundations; I started reading academic literature on facial micro-movements. I found that Paul Ekman had developed a clear and consistent “vocabulary” of facial micro-movements, some of which he linked to specific emotions (both positive and negative).

And I started my own experiments in 2003 to analyze nonverbal interaction, by recording conversations with 2 cameras and having the videos edited into a split screen to allow precise analysis. I was even able to record a real negotiation in a large company in this way. What I found was that the sequence of Goodfield’s Nonverbal Leak was gone once people were in interaction; in the split screen video-clips I saw that people tended to repeat the same facial micro-movements very frequently; but I also could see this happening in an intricate facial nonverbal exchange with a seemingly random sequence. When I showed this material to Barry he could not explain these phenomena.

Reading neuropsychological literature in 2005 I found a plausible relationship between some of the facial micro-movements and the so called Fight-Flight-Freeze System of reflex reactions to tension or stress. To me this relationship made more sense than the assumptions about the birth process.

As I finished my studies with Barry I tried to integrate all those insights in a more objectified form of his method. From 2008 until the summer of 2010 I worked closely together with Barry, trying to introduce my findings and insights in nonverbal interaction in his method.

Unfortunately, there was not enough space to do so. More and more I found that Goodfield’s theory about the system in facial movements was not supported by literature nor scientific evidence; especially the idea that there is a Nonverbal Leak consisting of a set sequence of frequent facial micro-movements proved to be factually incorrect in interaction situations.

But he had inspired me thoroughly to follow up on trying to understand more about the nature and meaning of these movements. In my practice as negotiator and mediator I had become constantly aware of this information. There should be potentially important insights for increasing understanding between people. But the focus needed to be on nonverbal interaction.

2010-2011: Focus on nonverbal interaction and starting INSA

After leaving Goodfield I developed a training for professionals (like mediators) to deal with the interaction between others to solve a problem. This training was immediately successful.

I also read a lot of literature, like the work of James Russell, Nico Frijda and Alan Fridlund; they all emphasized the meaning of facial micro-movements in/for interaction, and they were critical of Ekman’s work that links these movements to specific emotions. By following up on a quote by Fridlund I found an original print from 1867 of the book by Theodor Piderit, a German physician and researcher who described repetitive facial micro-movements and assumed there would be a link to personality. Remarkable how this man had focused on what I was looking for and especially in the mid-19th century, without the help of modern video equipment!

Due to my renewed focus my thoughts formed quickly in that period. The main ingredients of what was later to be called the INSA Method were already developed before actually starting INSA:

  • the idea of the Personal Nonverbal Repertoire (PNR) as a set of micro-movements that is consistent for the individual, with a sequence influenced by nonverbal interaction;
  • a typology with not only stress behavior but also typical competencies and most importantly interactional needs;
  • the charting of nonverbal interaction patterns within the typology; and the practical meaning of these patterns in teams and for professionals.

Because I could not find any modern literature about repetitive facial micro-movements, I contacted the successor of Nico Frijda, professor Agneta Fischer at the University of Amsterdam. To my surprise she told me that to her knowledge this literature did not exist. As I was not about to let go of my search for solid information on this topic, I set up a meeting with her to talk about doing research myself.

At the same time I thought that this method needed more critical mass to make an impact in society and also to support the further development of my insights; research would cost time and money and  working on my own to support all this and market the idea would be tough.

In Annemieke Meurs and Yasmin Tarkhaili I found two partners who were willing to join forces; both had received training by Barry Goodfield and were interested to make this idea a success. Annemieke had her own practice in coaching and Yasmin came from a consultancy background. On May 24th 2011 we started the Institute for Nonverbal Strategy Analysis, a center of expertise that would conduct research and develop applications for various professionals.

2011-2018: INSA and two research projects

In the fall of 2011, our first project with the University of Amsterdam started, designed with the experience of Agneta Fischer. We had two hypotheses:

  1. every individual has a Personal Nonverbal Repertoire (PNR), consisting of two or more facial micro-movements that are shown frequently and consistently across various situations
  2. there is a relationship between the PNR and personality characteristics.

We set up 4 different situations for the 110 participants; they were video recorded in all 4 of them. and the participants filled in 5 (existing, validated) questionnaires about various aspects of behavior and personality. Parallel to building our business Annemieke, Yasmin and I worked hard to organize and execute the research sessions. In the fall of 2012, we had gathered the data and coded the video material (which was incredibly laborious!).

At the time I was optimistic about analyzing the data and working towards a publication. Agneta had already suggested we should aim for an international journal as we were the first to explore the phenomenon of repetitive facial micro-movements. This made the whole exercise also something of an adventure.

The dataset however proved to be extremely complex. We only started making any progress when in 2013 we received help from methodologists of the University. Even then progress was slow and often disappointing. It was only in late 2016 that we were able to put enough interesting findings on paper in the form of an article.  We tried to submit it to an international journal, but we found that we needed to do more work to make a publication viable. Especially the case for the existence of the PNR needed strengthening.

It led to our second project in 2017, where we retested the occurrence of PNRs and we examined the relationship between PNRs and negotiation behavior in a more extended simulation with an actor as counterpart for the 101 participants.

In the meantime, I had further fine-tuned the INSA Method, synchronizing it even more to the literature I read in both psychology and neuropsychology. And building on insights from our ongoing research projects. From our research it became clear that PNRs show a certain situational bandwidth for the behavior of the individual; and this bandwidth was visible in the fluctuations within the PNR (relative variations in frequency of micro-movements). I also introduced an even more factual terminology for our observations of micro-movements, staying away from any emotion interpretations or judgments. And I was able to make a plausible link between the INSA typology and the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality (neuropsychology; Gray, Corr, McNaughton).

Both Annemieke and I built applications and trainings with the INSA Method. Especially our Team Navigator proved to be successful. We set up a training program to educate professionals to be license holders. Over the years around 15 professionals of various backgrounds went through the program and became Masters of Nonverbal Strategy Analysis.

2018-…: refreshed start for INSA, finalizing the research projects

In early 2018 it became apparent that my partners Annemieke, Yasmin and I did not align anymore on the focus for INSA and the necessary investments in time, energy and money. I was doing too much work with conducting the business, organizational tasks and working on the research. There was less support from them for the ongoing research. Which in my view was and is essential as a matter of integrity to test our method a       nd thinking. But the split mainly just happened by how life developed for each of us.

So, we went our different ways and I continued with INSA. Logically, I also retained the full intellectual property of the INSA Method, as I had been the sole developer of the method and the thinking behind it.

Later that year I made a new start for INSA with An Gaiser, who had been the first of our license holders since 2013. She and I share the dream of creating and propagating a method that will contribute to society by more mutual understanding between people and more integrity in organizations.

The research projects were developing in a promising way especially since we received extra help in the form of a researcher from the University. And since I had been able to develop a specific analytic method to show the existence of PNRs. One of the problems we had been struggling with for all those years was the fact that individual participants differed strongly in individual expressivity (the frequency of all facial movements); the statistical program SPSS is constantly averaging data in the analyses, which did not take these individual differences sufficiently into account.

My analysis showed that 100% of the participants has a clear PNR, in both project 1 and project 2. This was a remarkable result that gave me new resolve to work on the publication. As I am writing this I may hope that we will submit the article in the first half of 2020 to the editors of an international journal.

Finally, I am inclined to say, although I have been told that fundamental new research takes 8 years in average….

In parallel the INSA Method is receiving more and more proof of concept in professional practice, also with organizations in law enforcement and security.

After all my years and efforts of exploring and researching I feel that there now is a method that makes people understand each other better and that will improve interaction processes, both professionally and personally. And of course, we will continue doing research to learn more and develop the method further. Always relentlessly testing the validity of our ideas. Now it is up to An and me to create the impact that we dream of.

Looking back I can only thank my parents for their important life messages. I thank Barry Goodfield who inspired me to set foot on this road; I thank Annemieke and Yasmin who accompanied me part of the way and supported me personally and in practical ways. I thank Agneta Fischer for spending considerably more time and effort on our projects than anticipated. And I thank An for inspiring me with new hope and energy to work on our joint dream.

Last but not least I thank my family for accepting all the long hours and weekends of me being totally and absurdly immersed in this quest for all those years.