Be one of the few who do.
You’re at an event and meet someone. You begin talking, and things seem to be going well. But then, her gaze begins to drift. She stops making eye contact with you and starts sweeping the room, apparently looking for someone more important or more interesting, as she halfheartedly continues the conversation.
How does this make you feel? I know that it made feel as if I had failed some social experiment. It’s one of the many reasons I grew weary of Tech networking events during my 23-year career in Silicon Valley. Someone would ask what you did, where you worked, and they obviously didn’t like the answer.
“Bzzzt! Wrong answer! I will no longer be making eye contact with you. I shall now scan the room looking for a more interesting person, and make some vague excuse to aid my escape.”
While much of our body language is involuntary during such interactions, we are self-aware, intelligent creatures. We know that certain behaviors indicate someone is interested in us or even finds us attractive. We also recognize other behaviors that signal when our conversational partner isn’t impressed with our status, doesn’t enjoy our company, and is planning an escape.
Given this awareness, we can choose to exert better control over our gaze behavior and body language cues to exude more confidence and convey higher status. We can also choose to deliberately use eye contact to communicate care, attention, and respect for others. It’s a critical part of my work now as a career advisor.
There are definitely times that using appropriate eye contact will transform and guide one-on-one interactions towards a more positive and successful outcome. But, giving someone your full attention is also the right way to communicate with others, period. Sometimes I don’t think we are even aware of how hurtful it can be to withhold eye contact and make someone feel ignored and unimportant.
We may be primates, but we don’t need to be primitive
A disturbing trend
I’ve noticed a trend over the past decade or so. Fewer people look you in the eye during a conversation. Eye contact should be made about 60-70% of the time during a discussion to create a sense of emotional connection, yet we are only doing it 30-60% of the time. No wonder so many people feel like they are never truly seen or heard.
Watch the interactions with a barista, someone taking an order at a cafe, or a store clerk. People are looking almost everywhere except that person’s eyes. The menu, the register, their phone, their wallet or purse, or their companion. They sometimes act as if there isn’t a living, breathing human being standing right in front of them.
There has always been wide variability in gaze behavior…
- Yes, there is always that one person who looks you in the eyes during a conversation and never looks away, rarely blinking, until you squirm in your seat.
- However, I used to have meetings with an exec who would turn his head and stare at the wall while he was talking.
- And another person I met frequently would always face the window across the conference room table and watch himself talk in the reflection.
But our omnipresent devices seem to exacerbate the problem.
- Over the years, it became an increasingly common meeting scenario to have a dozen or more people seated around a conference room with their eyes fixed on their laptop screens, supposedly having an important discussion.
- How many times have you witnessed presenters looking at their own slides, not the audience? Even those who do know that they should look at the audience tend to sweep the room like an ocular lawn sprinkler, instead of making real eye contact with you.
- Finally, smartphones entered the scene. I’ve lost track of the people who meet with me, in a business or social setting, and simply can’t maintain eye contact without glancing at their phones every few minutes.
I will admit that I have traditionally not been comfortable with eye contact. It used to feel prolonged and strange. I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
Part of this is because I’m an introvert. I struggle with feeling shy when I’m meeting new people. I’m usually the guy standing quietly in the corner, promising himself that he will stop attending these events.
But, in the past year or so, I decided to invest in this aspect of my personal development. I experimented with taking the time to make real eye contact and engaging fully with the people I meet every day.
It changed the conversations and interactions dramatically.
Body language, which includes eye contact, has a huge impact on others and this was what I have experienced as well. People sometimes act startled at first that you’re truly looking into their eyes, and then they light up, especially when it’s paired with a genuine smile. They’re immediately friendlier, more helpful, and I’ve discovered that they remember me more than ever before.
The power of eye contact
The appropriate duration of eye contact varies from situation to situation, and culture to culture. Longer eye contact (e.g., 3-7 seconds) can signal interest or attraction, but it can imply aggression if someone’s gaze is held for too long (e.g., 10 seconds or more).
But, in general, appropriate eye contact can make you seem more confident, likable, attractive, trustworthy, attentive, and memorable. It also makes the recipient feel recognized, understood, and validated. It’s a virtuous cycle. They believe that you like them, so they in turn like you.
Being viewed as likable and confident will help you in all aspects of your life, both personal and professional. It actually has a greater impact than your self-promotion and perceived authority (although that might get you in the door). It’s amazing that a simple thing like eye contact can influence this.
For example, if you want to be perceived as competent and confident during a job interview, be aware of your eye contact with the interviewer. When applying for a high-status job, applicants who gazed regularly at the recruiter were given significantly more favorable evaluations compared to those who avoided eye contact.
Gender and status differences
Research has found that people of higher status tend to use eye contact differently than those with lower status. For example, an individual in a great position of power may deny eye contact and look at other areas of the room while speaking. Or, they may stare more and not engage in the usual submissive behavior of looking down and away. I doubt that any of this is a conscious decision, but it does happen nonetheless.
We’ve all been in meetings, networking events, or other situations where there was a clear status difference. I’ve witnessed high-power individuals exclusively focus on the people with equivalent status, virtually ignoring the others in the room.
There are gender differences in eye gaze as well, which further reinforces the need to be aware of your behavior. Know that lowering your gaze signals lower status and submission. Know that denying others eye contact signals that you perceive them as lower status or uninteresting. Maintaining appropriate eye contact shows respect for the other person, and also makes it clear that you are confident with your own status.
Some unintended consequences
You should be aware that prolonged eye contact paired with a smile can have an unintended consequence. You may be perceived as more attractive and likable, but your direct smiling gaze may also signal that you find the other person attractive as well. In other words, “Use with caution.”
Another unintended consequence can occur if you stare at someone for too long without speaking. Not only does it make the recipient feel uncomfortable, in many cultures a long stare can be interpreted as aggression.
Your life will change
If you’ve always been someone who is comfortable with making eye contact, then the recommendations here may not have much additional impact for you. But, if you are like me or somewhat shy, your life will change when you fully embrace meaningful, consistent eye contact with the people you see every day.
You may not realize the gift that genuine eye contact can be, and you will be amazed by how people react when you start doing it more. Everyone wants respect, understanding, and attention. Looking someone in the eye is an easy way to provide that.
You will find that this critical part of your body language will improve your daily interactions on both a personal and professional level. Broadcasting that greater confidence and making deeper connections will benefit your career greatly.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, two Great Danes, two chickens, and a stubborn old cat. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.