I don’t have the space to cover a fraction of the facts we know about eye contact, and what people are thinking when they move their eyes in certain ways or to certain things, but I will go over some key elements.
In my time coaching people one-on-one there are usually two problems people have with their eyes when speaking with someone they don’t know or aren’t very comfortable with, and these are both to do with contact. The first and more common is lack of eye contact, or over shifting of the eyes; people who can’t meet other’s gazes at all look incredibly evasive, nervous, and it’s very hard for them to initiate interactions with others because they can’t give them prompts. They can also look like they’re not interested in the person they’re talking to, or that their mind is elsewhere. If this sounds all too familiar, it’s probably because eye contact makes you nervous, you fear being intrusive, or fear being intruded upon by a stranger’s gaze.
Don’t worry. You can get over this. My advice if you struggle to make eye contact is to practice with strangers, perhaps whilst you’re walking on your way to work or somewhere where people are passing you – you don’t want to practice with people who are sharing the same space as you and will be for a while.
Keep a neutral expression and look into their eyes for about a second. If they smile at you, or you feel like smiling at them, return the smile, but keep the one second rule – you’re not trying to frighten or flirt. Once you become comfortable with total strangers, try it with people you don’t know but will have contact with over a small period of time – waiters, shop assistants, that sort of thing. Here you can be a bit freer with your facial expressions; smile, raise your eyebrows, that sort of thing. This should get you into making eye contact with people you’re talking to.
If ever you’re trying this and you find it difficult, don’t freak out and look in the opposite direction, and don’t lock onto their eyes like you’re attempting some sort of mind control. Just move your gaze to their cheek, nose, or even collar if you need to. Practice, be patient, and your eye contact will improve.
If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum and you find eye contact all-too-easy, to the point where during conversation you’re looking into someone’s eyes 90% or more of the time, you can come across intense, angry, defiant, or even obsessive. This is easier to get over than lack of eye contact, as often this derives from habit rather than nervousness, but you may be quite nervous and just be overcompensating. Again don’t worry, this can be solved.
If you make too much eye contact the way to stop is to consciously be aware of it, and deliberately look away, over the shoulder, at the floor, and so on, every few seconds, unless you’re very engaged with the other person and holding their gaze. Don’t think you should outlast people with eye contact – communication is not a competition. If they look away, that may be a good opportunity to look away too. Keep in mind that generally you want to put people at ease, so mirror what they’re doing – if they make lots of eye contact so can you, but if they struggle to make eye contact they’re probably nervous; don’t stare them down and make reassuring gestures when your eyes do meet – nods, smiles, and look aways.
Remember, practice makes perfect.