Shakespeare said, “The eyes are the window to the soul.”
The phrase is well worn but no one has found a better way to say it.
Eyes carry a form of communication that is filled with clues about attitude, mood, stress, danger–and respect.
The West African greeting “Sawubona” means “I see you” and the response, “Ngikhona” means “I am here.”
Acknowledging another person by truly seeing them takes an authentic human moment. Add a nod or a “hello” and you’ve said, “I see you.”
So what gets in the way of this mini-miracle? Distraction. We are caught in the busy trap. We spend more time staring at our devices, just waiting for another message to appear, and only glance at people.
Your eyes can actually give away a fake smile. The mouth can turn upward for the camera but an authentic (or Duchenne) smile causes little crinkles at the corners of our eyes like crows feet. Instinctively we know the difference. No crinkles, the smile is counterfeit.
When we’re worried, we knit our brow, which makes the eyes look small and dark; but when we’re happy, we raise our eyebrows, and their eyes brighten.
The eyes transmit the energy of attention. If you have children in your life, you know the chant, “Watch me! Watch me!” Kids long for your eyes–your attention. They feel so energized by it they run faster and jump higher.
The simple truth is that we all bask in the attention of others. We long to have each other’s deep interest and we are empowered to communicate at a deeper level.
Just think of a good listener in your life. How do you feel when you’re with them? I would answer understood, connected and authentic.
Many folks who come to Interact Studio are concerned that by extending their eye contact they will make others uncomfortable. Typically they’ve just allowed their eye contact to atrophy and need to “get back in shape” by making what feels like prolonged eye contact.
No doubt, inappropriate, prolonged eye contact is rude. I once worked with an executive named Tony who had a glazed-over way of looking at people when he was lost in thought. He didn’t realize it, but he was making people uneasy by staring. As he became more aware, he was able to overcome the habit.
Another misuse of eye contact happens when someone is “pushy” or trying too hard to persuade us. A hard sell coupled with dominant eye contact prompts us to put up a wall.
Of course extended eye contact can also be romantic in nature. People in love can hold each other’s gaze for a long time. Love trumps everything.
Too Little Is Common
It has been my experience that few people have a problem with inappropriate eye contact while the majority of us offer too little eye contact.
We assume we have pretty good eye contact, but we actually look around the room like a pin ball, bouncing off one person to the next. Or we sweep the room from side to side—never resting on anyone long enough to connect.
Research from as far back as the 1980s shows that people who make appropriate eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.
In presentation mode, too little eye contact sends the signal that we are uneasy, unprepared and insincere.
5 Tips to Help Extend Your Eye Contact
- Build self-awareness. You don’t have to improve overnight. Begin by noticing how you make eye contact throughout the day. Do you glance at people or do you really see them?
- When someone is making a presentation, be intentional about supporting them by listening with your eyes. Empower them to communicate effectively. It’s a leadership habit.
- Ease up. Don’t try to connect with someone non-stop. It’s natural to break your gaze between stretches of meaningful eye contact. But if you catch yourself disconnecting, tune back in with your eyes.
- When you present or run meetings, have “mini-conversations,” one person at a time versus sweeping the room. Speak to each person as though, in that moment, they are the only other person in the room.
- When you’re with friends and family, don’t take them for granted. Turn off your device and avoid multi-tasking that draws your eyes away from the conversation. Ask them to do the same.
Eye contact is a form of communication that has no rival. Brush up.
The length of eye contact will vary by culture. The Japanese tend to avert their eyes more quickly than those in Western cultures, and they may interpret someone who uses eye contact as unpleasant or unapproachable.