The first problem with eye contact is that we all know that it is A Good Thing which we should all practise, but we don’t know how to do it without looking and feeling awkward and just a bit creepy.
The second problem is that we all know a little bit about how eye contact works, just enough to nudge each other and say things like, ‘Did you notice, no eye contact? Shifty or what!’ ‘Never trust anyone who looks you straight in the eye. I read that somewhere.’
And so we make instant judgements without checking the accuracy of our perceptions, while hoping that our own mismanaged signals will be correctly interpreted.
Let’s focus on three everyday situations, and look at some simple strategies which will help you to make appropriate eye contact and benefit from the improvements in communication and understanding which will result.
Speaking with one person
Whether you are talking to a friend or family member or work colleague or boss, you take it in turns to speak and listen.
When you are the person speaking, look for a moment or two into the person’s eyes. Try to make this gaze just a moment longer than you feel is comfortable. Just a moment. Then, relief! You don’t have to keep looking.
Instead, you look up and down, sideways, gaze into the distance, whatever, as you continue speaking.
But then, you do it again. Make the contact, briefly. Then away. There you go. Not so difficult, eh?
When you are the person listening, it’s a bit more challenging. You could try to maintain eye contact for only part of the time, and synchronise your gaze with the speaker’s, but that can backfire as you find yourself looking away just as they look back, and that really does look a bit shifty.
Try to maintain steady eye contact while the person is speaking. You usually only need to do this in short bursts, as the speaker comes to a natural pause, or looks at a screen, or does something on a keyboard, or stops to eat or drink.
If you find your eyes getting tired and feel yourself going into starey mode, all you do is shift your gaze. See their face as a triangle, with the forehead at the top, tapering to the chin. Looking anywhere in this triangle is fine. Look at the bridge of the person’s nose, or the side of their cheek. The effect is the same. You give the impression of making eye contact, even though you are not actually looking into their eyes.
In professional situations, stick to the top half of the triangle. Looking at someone’s mouth can give the wrong signal — or, who knows, the one you intend? What an interesting life you have.
Speaking in a group
The group could be, for example, a number of friends, or a team meeting, or an interview panel. The temptation is to focus on one person with whom you feel comfortable and keep your gaze fixed on them. This excludes everyone else and makes you appear awkward and lacking confidence.
What works better is to start by engaging with one person. This might be the one who is positioned in the middle of the group, or who is opposite you, or who is leading the interview or discussion.
Then, move your eyes away from this person and sweep over the rest of the group, making brief eye contact with each one. You can do this in a zig-zagging motion, when you jump from person to person, which is more natural with a small number, or do a sweep of the whole group. A mix of both techniques is effective.
Here’s a situation where the number of times you make contact is probably more significant than the quality of each encounter.
We’re not talking deep and meaningful gazes with your neighbour at the bus stop, or the person who supplies your skinny decaf latte (otherwise known as a Why Bother), or a teacher or parent whose face you vaguely recognise, or the person whose path you cross as you walk towards each other. All you need to do is give a brief acknowledgement of this person’s presence in the tiny bit of the planet which you share.
So don’t be scared or shy away from this slightest of slight engagements. Just look briefly at the person’s face, smile by just stretching the corners of your mouth, and accompany this with a quick eyebrow flash. Think of it as a little dance. Boom, boom, chachacha.
More often than not, the person will return your signal.
If they don’t, so what. They may be in a world of their own and not even notice you. Don’t be deterred from making this your default behaviour. You will feel good, and make other people feel good.
In their book, Loneliness, by John Cacioppo and William Patrick, psychologist and neuroscientist John Cacioppo quotes the words of one man he interviewed: ‘I can remember exactly the year eye contact stopped.’
This short statement packs a punch far weightier than its number of words. It speaks of the feelings of loneliness and isolation which result from lack of engagement with our fellow human beings.
There is a warning here for us all, as we hunch over screens, immersed in the digital world and blocking out the real one, which alerts us to the consequences of withdrawing from human contact.
The day eye contact died. Someone should write a song about it.