Chuck Lauer: Look Me in the Eye

I'm always taken aback when I'm talking to someone and I notice they're is looking in a different direction. Somehow, somewhere, without realizing it, that person has developed the habit of not being able to look anyone in the eye. This is off-putting. People who can't — or won't — maintain eye contact are handicapping themselves.
I don't think this is a rare phenomenon. We live in a world where people are constantly looking at their smartphones, even in the middle of a conversation, at meetings or at home relaxing with their families. And when people put their phones away, they tend to get diverted by something across the room. We are a society full of distractions, and that makes it harder to communicate well and build strong relationships.
 
When you're in the exam room, your doctor may be staring at the electronic medical record on his or her laptop while taking your physical. How successful is the doctor going to be in drawing you out? Or at a business meeting, potential clients are doodling as you make a proposal. How trusting are you going to feel toward someone who can't look you in the eye? I've even had people show up to talk about a job who avoid eye contact the whole time. Not a winning strategy!
 
Eye contact may seem very trivial. After all, if I can't look you in the eye, aren't we still going to connect in some other way? We might, but it won't have the same impact. Your eyes express the depths of your soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first." Great leaders know how important it is to look people in the eye. Bill Clinton is famous for making you feel that you are the most important person in the room.
 
This skill is not as simple as it may seem. I have a dear friend who knows she has a problem with eye contact, but try as she may, she can't keep it up for long. An article in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal titled, "Just Look Me In the Eye Already,"1 shows this is complicated and nuanced territory.
 
According to the Journal article, adults make contact 30 to 60 percent of the time in an average conversation, but to create an emotional bond, they should be making eye contact 60 to 70 percent of the time. When people withhold eye contact out of carelessness or disrespect, it speaks volumes. Constantly checking your smartphone during a meeting has the same impact as not showing up for half the meeting, an expert told the Journal.
 
People have grown accustomed to communicating without making eye contact. They talk on the phone, email, tweet and text-message. When couples converse in the car or watch TV, they look straight ahead. We don't have much face time anymore, and eye contact is becoming a kind of lost art. When we are called upon to do it, it doesn't come so easily anymore.
 
I was raised in a household where I could get into trouble if I didn't look my parents in the eye. When I went into sales, it quickly became apparent that if you want to influence people, you better pay close attention to eye contact, because it conveys your confidence in the other person. "Prolonged eye contact during a debate or disagreement can signal you're standing your ground," an expert in the Journal article said. It also indicates your rank in society: Those in a higher status tend to look longer at the people they are talking to.
 
Of course, there can be too much eye contact. The Journal said eye contact lasting more than 10 seconds can seem "aggressive, empty and inauthentic." A study showed that when monitors gazed intently into participants' eyes while administering a test, it unnerved them so much that their ability to use their memory was impaired.
 
There are also cultural taboos against eye contact. In many Eastern and some Caribbean cultures, looking into someone's eyes is thought to be rude. Asians may regard a person who makes prolonged eye contact as angry or unapproachable.
 
A seemingly simple thing turns out to be most complicated! Here are some things to remember about eye contact:
 
1. Listening is an important interpersonal skill, and good eye contact clearly shows your interest.
 
2. Maintaining eye contact can reduce tension in a conversation, show assertion and convey respect.
 
3. When you meet people for the first time, give them your full eye contact and maintain it when you are saying good-bye. It will leave a lasting impression.
 
4. With any business associate or client, eye contact is mandatory! No excuses, no matter what the temptation is across the room.
 
5. Eye contact that goes on too long makes people uncomfortable. Glance down occasionally and then quickly return your gaze.
 
6. Use your eyes to convey emotions such as empathy or even disappointment. Not a single word has to be spoken!
 
7. Maintaining eye contact can be learned, like anything else. But it takes practice and is harder for some people than others.
 
8. If your gaze tends to wander, learn the discipline of focusing on one person at a time. You can practice in front of a mirror.
 
9. Reduce digital distractions. Checking your smartphone definitely impedes eye contact and human interaction.
 
10. Solid eye contact with a smile is a winning combination that is hard to ignore. Use it as often as you can!
 
In summary, eye contact can make the difference when trying to influence people. It will bring you rich rewards. Conversely, not showing respectful eye contact can cause misunderstandings and make you lose friends. Being aware of it is just a matter of common sense. Here's looking at you!

Footnotes:
1 Shellenbarger, S. (2013, May 29). "Just Look Me in the Eye Already.' Wall Street Journal. Available online at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324809804578511290822228174.html

More Articles by Chuck Lauer
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Chuck Lauer: Trust
Chuck Lauer: Keep it Simple

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