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Eye Contact: Why It's Important
and How to Do It Correctly
Whether it's caused by social anxiety, or it's just an ingrained habit, making strong eye contact with others is an uncomfortable situation for many. But your level of eye contact with other people influences every relationship in your life.
From colleagues to friends to romantic partners, eye contact says a lot about you, your relationship with the other person and more.
In the workplace, your ability to make strong eye contact can affect everything from getting a new job to advancing your career.
So what signals are we sending when we make eye contact (or avoid it)?
What eye contact tells others about us:
- People with high status make more eye contact than people with less status.
But - people with high status also avoid eye contact with those they perceive to have a lower social status.
- Eye contact tells others that you are trustworthy, confident, and engaged.
- A lack of eye contact can tell others you aren't interested in them or what they have to say.
- Avoiding eye contact can signal that you are self-conscious or lacking confidence.
Why People Avoid Eye Contact
If you constantly struggle to create strong eye contact, you may have Eye Contact Anxiety.
Eye contact anxiety is a pronounced discomfort with making eye contact.
A person with eye contact anxiety may be unable to look directly into other people's eyes when talking. They often feel like they are being judged or scrutinized when making eye contact.
Eye Contact and Lack of Confidence
For those without a diagnosed condition, avoidance of eye contact could be related to shyness or a lack of confidence.
Making eye contact while speaking can feel uncomfortable for people who are also uncomfortable with conversation in general. They tend to avoid the spotlight.
Eye Contact and Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety often describe making eye contact as anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable.
Part genetic wiring and part learned behavior, people with social anxiety disorder have a heightened fear of direct eye contact.
If you have social anxiety disorder, eye contact can trigger the amygdala, the part of your brain that warns you of danger.
Research on Eye Contact and Social Anxiety Disorder
A review published in Current Psychiatry Reports found that social anxiety is a combination of being on guard and avoiding social stimuli.
This means that at a party, you may be focused on identifying people who seem to be judging you and avoiding interaction with those people.
The review showed that socially anxious people avoid making and maintaining eye contact because they are overly self-conscious.
“In order for eye contact to feel good, one person cannot impose his visual will on another; it is a shared experience. Perhaps eyes meet only for a second at first; one partner then tests the waters and tries a few seconds, and when that is met warmly, the pair can begin ramping up the eye contact together until they are locked in a beautiful dance of eyes and gazes.”
Michael Ellsberg: The Power of Eye Contact
Tips for Making and Keeping Eye Contact
Using these strategies to improve your eye contact will reduce your anxiety and make listeners feel more connected.
- Make eye contact when you start talking to someone.
- Maintain eye contact 50 percent of the time when you speak and 70 percent when you're listening.
- Allow your eyes to go slightly out of focus to reduce the intensity and relax your gaze.
- Look away occasionally to avoid "creepy" staring.
- Hold eye contact for about five seconds at a time and when you break eye contact, glance to the side before resuming your gaze.
- When you look away, do it slowly to avoid appearing shy or nervous.
- Don't look down when you break your gaze because it can signal a lack of confidence.
- Rather than looking away, you can also look at another part of their face.
- Break your gaze as you make a gesture for a more natural disconnect.
- If keeping eye contact becomes stressful, look at a spot on their nose, mouth, or chin.
Making More Eye Contact in a Group Setting
Making eye contact with an audience is one of the most terrifying things about speaking in public.
As you speak, choose one person in your audience and pretend that you are talking only to that person.
As you begin a new sentence or idea, choose another person in the group and make eye contact as you finish your thought. Include as many people in the group as you can.
Making More Eye Contact in an Interview
Interviews can be uncomfortable for many. Add in a fear of eye contact and social anxiety, and just getting through an interview can be torture.
Not to mention the likelihood of not getting hired.
But when you work at getting more comfortable with eye contact, much of the anxiety and social awkwardness are diminished.
Tips for Making Better Eye Contact in Interviews
It is important to make immediate eye contact while you shake hands with your interviewer. This combination gives the appearance of confidence.
Maintain eye contact as the interviewer asks questions. Focus on combining eye contact with an appropriate facial expression. Don’t stare!
Spread Your Gaze
You may be interviewed by more than one person. Spread your attention and eye contact slowly from one interviewer to another as you answer questions.
Emphasize Important Points
For key points that you really want interviewers to remember, make particularly intense eye contact.
Use These Eye Contact Tips at Work
Make steady eye contact with your boss, breaking your gaze every few seconds to one side or the other.
Your boss will interpret this as a confident and friendly interaction and leave a lasting impression.
Meet the eyes of new clients or colleagues for only a second or two and give a brief acknowledgement with a nod.
This tells them you aren't a threat and that you don't see them as a threat.
In groups, slowly sweep your gaze around the room while briefly focusing on other's faces.
This makes people feel more engaged and open to your presence.
The Benefits of Eye Contact at Work
Eye contact makes you more memorable.
A joint study between the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Stirling found that if you want people to remember what you say, maintain good eye contact.
Eye contact and movement entices others to notice and remember you.
According to research on eye contact and movement, movement, such as a sudden hand motion or a turn of the head while you make eye contact, has a profound effect.
Eye contact makes people more honest.
Sometimes, liars make more eye contact than truth tellers, but eye contact tends to make most people more honest when confronted.
Our eyes give away way more about our internal processes than we might like.
Whatever the scenario, remember that eye contact is fundamentally connected to our perceptions of truth and honesty.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.
Whether at work or in a social setting, learning to make appropriate eye contact helps you engage with others with a stronger connection. Practice with family or friends to create good eye contact habits and use your new skills as often as possible. With better eye contact skills, you'll appear more confident, social, and engaging.
About the Author
Heidi Thiel is a writer and content creator with a focus on business and leadership, especially when it comes to women in the workplace. When she’s not writing, you can usually find Heidi enjoying the sunny beaches in San Diego. You can take a look at more of her work at Rory.