“Look at me when I’m talking to you” – famous words from parents and significant others across America. At the time you may have thought they were being dramatic because, after all, you only need ears to hear right? While you’re technically correct, have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who was looking elsewhere while you were speaking? Maybe at the floor, or worse, their phone?! The audacity! The absence of eye contact can be infuriating, but why? Why is this nonverbal communication so important to people?
One notion is that it conveys interest. As humans, we tend to look at things that are interesting. Whether it’s a person, a painting, or a TV show, we love to be visually stimulated. Simple eye contact can instantly make you seem more reliable, honest, confident, and caring. There’s a connection that is formed once eyes are locked, and when that’s broken, it’s a silent cue that you’re no longer interested.
Take public speaking for example. You have scanned the audience, met their gaze, and silently invited them to engage with you. These are now active listeners and their sustained eye contact makes you feel more confident and powerful. You are commanding the room. However, once their eyes start to wander this powerful silent bond is shattered and all you see are bored, aloof, disrespectful people. No fun.
Another notion is that eye contact allows others to get a glimpse inside of you. The eyes are a dead giveaway to emotional pain, happiness, anger, or sadness. Because of this, the act of maintaining eye contact can be extremely revealing for some people and can leave them feeling uncomfortable or exposed.
So how do you use this important nonverbal communication to your advantage? Simple. Ignore all innate feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability and meet people’s gaze. Try not to dart your eyes away because you’ll appear nervous and if you look at the ground, you’ll appear intimidated and uncomfortable. Ideally, maintain contact for about 4-5 seconds, slowly glance away, then restore contact again.
Don’t make it a staring contest
Don’t try to see who is the alpha in the conversation. This is not a duel
Don’t have “shifty eyes” that dart all over the room – these are not trust inspiring
Don’t feel insecure and nervous based upon some unrealistic pedestal you have put the speaker on. Remember that everyone has flaws and that you are not a submissive; you are an equal. Look at them with confidence knowing that
Don’t forget to nod and smile if the conversation is light and casual
Don’t let awkward silence eat up space in a conversation. Know what to say next
Most importantly, just try to relax and let your eyes do the talking. The list of “don’ts” may seem like common sense but once it’s show time, everything disappears. What am I supposed to do next? Should I laugh? Has it been 4 seconds, can I look away now? Oh no, am I messing this up?! Relax. Practice makes perfect and this is one skill that is worth perfecting. Eye contact is an important tool in business, friendships, and in love. After all, they are the window to the soul.