More than just a glance across a room, eye contact is a complex package of skills that can easily trip us up. Although eye contact is a key part of body language, in a virtual conversation we can switch off our camera and effectively blind the gaze of others at will. So how well do we deal with the finer points of eye contact on days when we’re in the office?
How eye contact affects communication
Words can take time to get to the point, while your eyes quickly show what you mean. Eye contact can set the right tone, it can also expose how you feel. How do you want to come across to the other person and maximise your personal impact? Perhaps as an informed expert? Or as a leader expecting more from your team? Maybe as a conciliatory team player, or someone who’s confident though respectful of others.
All of these values can be conveyed in the blink of an eye depending on how you look (or don’t look) at someone. Eye contact mostly comes down to three things: the duration of your gaze, how you look away and what your eyes say about how you’re really feeling.
Holding eye contact is a sign of strength, so looking away every now and again suggests a conciliatory stance. It encourages the other person to do the same – showing them that you don’t need be adorned with their constant gaze. Looking away every now and again signals a healthy balance of power in the conversation. In a difficult conversation, one person can hold sway by deliberately not looking away (staring almost) as they speak – for example a football manager staring down a player while forcefully expressing an opinion at half-time.
How you look away is important too. A brief sideways glance suggests you’re collecting your thoughts, perpetually looking down at your feet suggests you’ve got something to hide.
Whether you’re speaking or listening, looking away for too long implies your eyes – and your attention – have been drawn to something (or someone) else. Look to see how the other person is responding to what you’re saying. This is particularly important when gauging the room during a presentation. Are people in your audience looking at you and staying interested in what you have to say? Of course, it’s possible that they’re looking at you though in truth they’ve long stopped listening and are mentally playing Wordle, but at least they’re being polite.
Windows to the soul
As ‘windows to the soul’, your eyes can give you away. There’s not much you can do to stop tension, nerves or excitement being apparent in your eyes. Rather than looking away, it’s better to recognise how you feel and perhaps focus on something more objective – for example, think about what you might need to say next.
Just as managing eye contact is essential when speaking, it’s also a key part of listening too. Listening with your eyes is an under-rated skill. You might not notice boredom creeping into your eyes, but the other person will. If you’re looking to keep their trust, it’s important to show that they’re holding your attention.
Research shows just how fundamental eye contact is to communication. The white of the eye – the ‘sclera’ – is rare among animals and unique among primates, and enables us to evaluate unspoken messaging. According to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Liverpool University, “We study other people’s gaze to gauge whether they are telling lies or joking, for example.” Research suggests that the structures of the brain that support emotion and behaviour contain ‘mirror neurons’, cells that encourage us to copy the behaviour we see in others. These can be triggered by eye contact, leading to a sense of ‘shared attention’. Managing this kind of two-way perception is no easy business, as Nick Smallman, CEO of Working Voices, explains.
Tackling problems with eye contact
Advice from communication expert Nick Smallman
In my time coaching people one-on-one, there are usually two problems involving eye contact when speaking with someone you don’t know or aren’t very comfortable with. The first and more common is lack of eye contact, or over shifting of the eyes. People who can’t meet someone’s gaze at all look evasive and nervous. It’s hard for them to initiate interactions with others because they can’t signal their interest in talking. 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 might be because eye contact makes you nervous, you might be fearful of appearing intrusive, or fear being intruded upon by a stranger’s gaze.
Practising with strangers
My advice if you struggle to make eye contact is to practise with strangers, somewhere where people are passing you – you don’t want to practise 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, for example. 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, try not to 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. Practise, be patient, and your eye contact will improve.
Those with the second of the two problems I mentioned appear on the opposite end of the spectrum. For them, eye contact comes all too easily, to the point where during a conversation they’re looking into someone’s eyes 90% or more of the time. They can come across as intense, angry, defiant, or even obsessive. This is easier to manage than lack of eye contact, as it often derives from habit rather than nervousness (though they may be quite nervous and just be overcompensating). Again, it’s a problem that can be solved.
If you make too much eye contact, the way to stop is to 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 feel that 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, feel free to do the same. If they struggle to make eye contact, they may be nervous; help them with reassuring gestures when your eyes do meet – nods, smiles, and look aways. Remember, practise makes perfect.