07/31/2014 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's All in the Eyes


"What part of my face do you like best Mama?" Asked my 7-year-old daughter after she planted a sudden kiss on my cheek and a huge smile spread across her face.

She continued to cuddle in my lap with her arms wrapped tightly around my neck staring at me and waiting for my answer.

"What part of your face do you like best?" I replied. After all, a Jewish mother always answers a question with another question.

"I like my eyes because I can see everything with them." Came her immediate reply without an ounce of hesitation.

And once again, I wondered at how it's possible that small children are such fluent mind, or maybe rather mood, readers.

I had come home from work that day emotionally and physically tired and had curled up on the corner of the couch to relax and unwind. When my daughter saw me she apparently thought I looked comfortable because she climbed into my lap and proceeded to hug and kiss me and bask with me in the heat of the fireplace. But after her seemingly innocent comment, I wondered if she wasn't sent to me by a higher power to help me reflect on my day.

I sat there thinking about a conversation I had had that day with a patient of mine.

"I can't even look in the mirror anymore. I don't recognize myself."  She managed to say to me in between tears.

"You have beautiful eyes." I said to her, holding her glance and staring into her eyes. "Look at your eyes next time you look in the mirror."

Working as a nurse in outpatient oncology is not easy but it's a privilege. There is sadness and there is joy. There are losses and there are triumphs. There is the whole gamut of human emotions expressed in a million different ways because no two people cope or deal with things the same way.

For me, the most challenging aspect of my work is trying to hear and interpret the things that are not said. Trying to read people, with only the clues that their body language and sparse words give away, is not an easy task. Thank goodness though for eyes, because If you know how to look, they will tell you all you need to know. My 7-year-old daughter had the right idea.

If you're willing to look, not just with a glance but with a deep hard look, eyes don't lie the way a smile can.

A simple "I can see you're worried," when spoken gently, to someone hiding behind a big smile, will more often than not lead to a long much needed conversation.

Eyes will tell you if an "I'm okay" is the truth or the brave facade of someone barely holding it together.

"Are you sure you don't want to talk about what you're feeling right now, because you don't look like you're okay?" Is a question that acknowledges what you see but gives the person the right to decline talking about it.

Eyes will clue you into fear, sadness, loneliness, love, hate, anger, happiness, hopefulness and a whole slew of emotions.

Even if you don't know how to read the clues as to what emotion someone is feeling, if you maintain eye contact with them and look at their eyes, you'll know something is off. Then it's a simple question, even if you're guessing, "You look tired today." "You look like something is troubling you." "You look sad." Nine out of 10 times if you are showing genuine interest, that will be enough to open the conversation.

Eyes are your manual to understanding the people around you, be it your patients, your co-workers, your children, you spouse, your friends and even strangers. That's because eyes are the window to our soul and the reflection of our mood and feelings. It doesn't matter what color they are, it matters who they belong to.

Eyes will tell you everything you need to know. Sometimes they will make it easy by leaving a trail of watery tears or a glint of sparkly eyes. Other times they will hide away behind closed lids. But they are the key, because in order to understand people, you need to really look at them, not just see them.

The question is whether you care enough to look. Do you?