Making Eye Contact: What’s the Right Amount?

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.

In our workshops at Interact, we invite people to pair up and participate in a listening exercise. Once the conversation gets going, we cue the listening-partner to turn away and begin to text a message from their smart phone. This demonstrates a great deal about the art of engaged communications.

Speaking-partners tell us  “I forgot what I was saying”, “I felt discounted” or “I was unable to continue.”

One client told me recently, “It was as though I had been unplugged.”

Eye contact and human evolution

If you have children in your life, you know the refrain, “Watch me, Mom! Watch me, Dad!” Kids long to have your complete attention. They feel so energized by it they run faster and jump higher.  From my experience as a coach, I know that the same is true of adults. We all long to have each other’s deep interest and we are empowered to communicate more effectively when we have an attentive audience.

I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store the other day.  A beautiful baby girl hung over her mother’s shoulder to watch me with wide-eyed, unflappable interest. I stared back in the same spirit of delight. Researchers believe that my exchange with this cherub goes all the way back to  the primitive brain’s approach to survival. Children who could attract the eye contact and attention of adults had a better chance of being fed and cared for.

The height of distraction

Today, we are at the height of distraction. We spend more time orbiting our own thoughts than in the moment. 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.

We stare at our devices, just waiting for another message to appear, and only glance at people.

Or we sweep the room from side to side—never resting on anyone long enough to connect.

How to make eye contact without staring

Prolonged eye contact is interpreted to be rude and in some cases, threatening.

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 with his staring. As he became more aware, he was able to change the direction of his gaze.

Another ineffective use of eye contact happens when someone is trying too hard to persuade us. A hard sell coupled with dominant eye contact causes us to resist and put up a wall.

What about too little eye contact?

Still, it has been my experience that only a few people have a problem with prolonged eye contact while the majority of us offer too little eye contact.

Too little eye contact sends the signal that we are uneasy, unprepared and insincere. Research from as far back as the 1980s shows that people who make appropriate eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

If a speaker can connect with individuals in a conversational way, he or she is judged to be more believable and competent. Having “mini-conversations” with members of the audience creates a personal closeness in the room that everyone can feel.

Seven tips for increasing eye contact

  1. Begin by noticing how you make eye contact throughout the day. Do you really look people in the eye? Are you connecting?
  2. When you present or run meetings, have “mini-conversations,” one person at a time versus sweeping the room.
  3. When someone else is speaking, give them your eyes and empower them to communicate effectively
  4. Turn off your device and avoid multi-tasking that draws your eyes away from the conversation
  5. Hold the gaze of each person 3-4 seconds and you will notice the connection
  6. Connect long enough to determine the eye color of the individual
  7. Speak to each person as though, in that moment, they are the only other person in the room

Cultural differences with eye contact

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.

In social settings, prolonged eye contact is flirtatious. People in close relationships can hold each other’s gaze for a long time.

William Shakespeare said, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”  I believe he captured the power of eye contact, which is a form of silent communication that has no rival. We assign great weight to the signals we get and give when we look into each other’s eyes.  We will be researching it for a long time to come.


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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.