The Fundamentals of Eye Contact

Eye contact is a non-verbal communication that can have profound influence on your social and professional interactions. In general, eye contact demonstrates interest and confidence. But it’s not that simple. When is your gaze considered too long? How do you make eye contact when you are speaking with more than one person? If someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, what conclusions do you draw about that person?

Looking at people and meeting their eyes is vital to your professional success. Let’s consider several situations that demand effective eye contact.

Speaking with One Person

When you are involved in a conversation with one person, there will be opportunities for you to talk and others for you to listen.

When you are listening to someone, I believe you should maintain 100% eye contact with this person. I don’t stare at people. I just meet their eyes in a manner that indicates a sincere interest in what they are saying.

If you get a sense that someone is feeling uncomfortable with your eye contact (because they often look down or away during the conversation) I recommend that you occasionally break the eye contact for a one to two seconds. This should put the person at ease and make for a more productive conversation.

I vividly recall a painful lesson I learned years ago. After completing a sales training for two hundred people, a woman came to the podium, introduced herself and commented on the presentation. As she was talking, I occasionally looked at the other people waiting to speak with me. She then paused and said, “Do you not have an interest in what I am saying?” Ouch! That one really hurt!

Since that time I have always been conscious about maintaining 100% eye contact with people when there are distractions that could draw my eyes away from them. Because of this uncomfortable experience, I never look away from the person who is talking to me, unless someone interrupts me. And even then, as soon as possible I return my eyes and attention back to the person to whom I was originally talking.

When you are the person talking, it’s acceptable to occasionally look away in order to collect your thoughts. If there are distractions in the room, you must make certain to maintain your focus and eye contact on the person who is listening to you.

Speaking To More Than One Person

When you are taking part in conversation with a group of two or more people, additional challenges are presented.

When you are with a group and a member of the group is talking, you should give this person your full attention by making 100% eye contact. Have you ever talked to a group of people and wondered who was really listening? The reason you felt that way was because people weren’t making eye contact with you. How did that make you feel? When you make eye contact with people who are talking, they will know you are listening, sense your respect and appreciate your undivided attention.

If you don’t look at the person talking, they WILL notice. Not only will they notice, but also they will feel disconnected from you and perhaps even worse, sense a lack of respect.

As the Golden Rule so appropriately states, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” If you want people to listen to you when you talk, then be sure you are listening to them when they talk.

The most challenging part of making eye contact in a group setting takes place when you are the one speaking. It is imperative that you share your eye contact equally with everyone in the group. This action demonstrates that each person is important to you. It also communicates to them that you understand the importance of including them in the conversation.

This lesson not only applies to your business meetings but to your social interactions as well. If you don’t share your eye contact with everyone, it’s likely that someone will feel left out of the conversation and may feel inclined to start a new one with someone else in the group.

Let me give you a personal example of what happens when you don’t make equal eye contact when speaking with more than one person. My wife had been shopping for a new car and asked me to join her to look at a specific one that she was interested in buying. As the salesman talked to us, he spent 90% of his time looking at me and only 10% at my wife. After about two minutes into the conversation, I knew my wife would never buy her car from this salesman. Turns out I was right. When we left the dealership, she told me that she felt excluded from the conversation and that he was rude and disrespectful. His lack of eye contact cost him the sale!

Starting today, when talking with more than one person, challenge yourself to share eye contact equally with each person in the group. It takes practice, but like anything you practice, repetition will make it more natural.

Your eyes send messages. Establishing and maintaining eye contact with people demonstrates confidence, respect, and genuine interest.

About the Author: Todd Smith is a successful entrepreneur of 30 years and founder of Little Things Matter. To receive Todd’s daily lessons, subscribe here. All Todd’s lessons are also available on iTunes as downloadable podcasts. (Todd’s podcasts are ranked #27 in America’s top 100 podcasts and #1 in the personal and development field.)

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  • In some situations, direct eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge. If you meet a large animal in the wild, for instance, this would not be a good thing to do. In some cultures also, as Tom mentioned earlier, direct eye contact with someone above yourself in rank or status is considered disrespectful; whereas it is considered okay with someone of lower position. In America, this is not the norm, but in many parts of the world, it is.

  • Hi Janelle,

    Yes, if we are communicating with animals or visiting different cultures as Tom pointed out, the rules of eye contact would change.

    Todd

  • OlderWiser

    The link to this article caught my eye because this is something I realize I need to focus on. Too often, as I recall a previous conversation, I might remember the speaker's mouth - lips, teeth, and other facial expressions - more than their eyes. I realize that I must have subconsiously focused on their mouth movements instead of what they were actually saying. Aside from the fact that lips and mouths are interesting to watch - lol! - I also realize that I feel slightly offended if someone stares at my mouth when I talk and even self conscious about it.
    One more point that may be worth pointing out: if a person does NOT meet your direct gaze and his or her eyes dart everywhere, the impression they are conveying is that they have something to hide!

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