By John Millen
As we begin returning to in-person meetings in business and our personal lives, we are making a lot of social and personal adjustments.
Having stared at people’s eyes as pixels on video screens for the past 18 months, in-person eye contact may take some getting used to. And in-person meetings and presentations will call for renewing of our personal eye contact skills.
But the importance of eye contact in human communication cannot be overstated. We crave direct eye contact.
Our eyes have been called the “window of the soul,” giving us as human beings the opportunity to, we imagine, see inside of the real person.
The color, shape and positioning of the eyes may be captivating. Their expressiveness gives us enormous amounts of information and meaning.
Searching for trust
In business and life, we first search the eyes for trust.
Whether we read any of these signals accurately is an open question, but there’s no doubt that the eyes play a critical role in our communication with others.
This is why making direct eye contact is one of the most important and, for many people, the most difficult parts of giving a presentation or talking face to face.
Indeed, eye communication provides a sense of connection for both you and your audience.
Avoiding eye contact
I coach clients who, when presenting to large audiences, have developed a habit of looking to the back walls to avoid looking in people’s eyes. They tell me that when they look at faces in their audience, especially people they know, they feel judged.
In business and in life, the ubiquity of smartphones has reduced eye contact. In many cases, instead of looking directly at someone for an extended period to fully engage them, people may glance up from their phones and possibly nod.
In meetings, instead of watching other people’s eyes to gauge the subtext of meaning, people might be glancing at their phones or computer screens.
With texts and photos increasingly replacing conversation, it’s possible that a generation will lose some ability to understand or use eye contact, but the importance of eye contact will not diminish.
The importance of eye contact
Human beings draw a connection and a lot of information from looking at eyes. If a person shifts eye contact frequently or looks down, we assume nervousness or unease.
If people avoid our eyes under questioning, we think they might be lying. On the other hand, good eye contact can make us feel like somebody is really listening and respects us.
Eye contact is a powerful force, and its importance is demonstrated at an early age. Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., who studies body language, notes that infants naturally lock eyes with their caregivers. She says the significance of eye contact is still retained in the adult mind.
It shows a lack of confidence when we don’t look people in the eyes. Most people look down frequently or avoid eye contact when they’re nervous. A lack of eye contact can betray our apprehension and fear in a situation.
It is vital to portray confidence to your audience when speaking. Goman found that “If a speaker actively seeks out eye contact when talking, he or she is judged to be more believable, confident and competent.”
Cultural and other differences
People from different parts of the world interpret and communicate differently. In the United States and Europe, direct eye contact is encouraged. It is viewed as showing respect, trust and attentiveness to what the other person is saying.
In some other cultures, eye contact can be seen as rude or hostile. It may be a sign of respect to avoid eye contact with elders and those in authoritative positions. It is helpful to keep culture in mind when making eye contact — or avoiding it.
And of course, there are neurological factors such as being on the autism spectrum, which will greatly influence eye contact giving, and receiving.
Eye contact is a delicate beam to balance on. Too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive and intimidating. If too little eye contact is made, you might appear inattentive and insincere. The right amount of eye contact creates trust and an overall sense of comfort.
But the correct amount depends on each situation. Variables such as gender, personality, setting and culture all factor into successful eye contact. Some research indicates that eye contact should range anywhere from 30 to 60 percent during a conversation, depending on the context.
In The Power of Charm, Brian Tracy and Ron Arden’s bring up an additional skill to add depth to your connection and make your eye contact even more natural. They define flicking as “the simple act of shifting your gaze from one of the person’s eyes to the other while you are listening.”
If you want an example, watch a movie where a man and woman are gazing into each other’s eyes and watch how their eyes flick. Their eyes will be moving back and forth, showing engagement.
This technique helps avoid the vacant, blank stare that may come across as phony listening. Active eyes show involvement in the conversation.
Improving your eye contact
Here are a few other strategies to sharpen the effectiveness of your eye contact:
Complete a point
In a meeting or presentation, try to maintain eye contact with a person as you introduce and complete a point, then move on to another person or section of the audience to develop a rhythm for you and your listeners.
Early on, talk directly to the people in front of you as if you were talking to a friend at a barbecue. Keep longer-than-usual eye contact with them while you make a point. It will make a connection and help you to feel calm.
Find supportive faces
Similarly, find people in the audience who are supporting you through their body language, such as a smile or head nod. Connect with them. Use them as a touchpoint and circle to the people around them. You will create a sphere of goodwill in that section.
Scan the room
Divide a large audience into three or four sections and rotate through the sections, looking at individuals near the front to middle in that section. The people behind them will feel that you are looking at them. Don’t just look from side to side, but vary your pattern around the room.
Develop awareness of how you give eye contact and how you judge the eye contact of others. Do you avoid eye contact? Do you perceive eye contact from others as overly aggressive?
Ask people you trust to give you feedback about your own eye contact. Do you give too much? Do you give too little?
Eye communication is complex and in many ways mysterious. This week, try to develop some awareness of how you communicate with your eyes and be more deliberate in your approach.
Maybe you’ll find that your eyes really are the “window of the soul” and you’ll invite more people to meet the real you.