The “Eyes” Have It

Of all the ways we communicate with people, eye contact is the most powerful.  In his book, Eye To Eye: How People Interact, Dr. Peter Marsh says, “How we look at other people, meet their gaze and look away can make all the difference between an effective encounter and one that leads to embarrassment or even rejection.”  Whether it’s a loving gaze, hostile stare, nervous glance or a refusal to look altogether, the duration of the contact (or lack thereof) reveals our interest in the other party and the situation.

Looking at people and meeting their eyes are the first steps toward striking up friendships and making positive impressions.  The best advice is to make short frequent glances in social situations.  Making eye contact for too long a duration can be seen as threatening; the subtext of interest becomes distorted.  Failing to look at others causes suspicion as they wonder what signals are being masked.  “Honesty and the ability to look someone in the eye are very closely related,” continues Dr. Marsh.  Refusing to make eye contact also sends messages of arrogance and contempt communicating to the other person that they are insignificant, a nonperson.  There are subtle, silent rules to eye contact and they vary from culture to culture.  What follows are some of the guidelines in American society. 

According to Julius Fast in his book, Subtext, the “moral looking time” is different in different settings.  With people we don’t know where our personal bubble of space is also being invaded, eye contact hardly exists.  In an elevator, on a plane or on the street, make contact if you wish, but break it immediately.  Any glance longer than a brief one becomes a sign of recognition or rudeness.  In general conversation, you can make eye contact for a few seconds at a time before breaking it.  And in public speaking situations, glances of even longer duration are vital to getting your message across.

In normal conversation, eye contact plays an important role as the regulator of turn taking.  To start a conversation with someone, you need to first establish eye contact.  If that person looks back, “permission” has been granted to begin speaking.  As soon as the conversation begins, you will find that, as the speaker, you look away from the listener glancing back only intermittently to check in.  If you’re speaking to a group, be sure to check in with all sets of eyes to maintain their interest.  When you are done, grant permission via eye contact to the person who has signaled his intention to speak next.  If you don’t want to be interrupted by someone, avoid his gaze.  Without eye contact, your listener will find it more difficult to interrupt which will keep you in control of the conversation.

As a listener, you look more at the speaker in order to show your responsiveness and interest.  Listeners typically look at the speaker about 75% of the time in glances lasting 1-7 seconds.  If you want to make a verbal contribution, it’s important that you reestablish eye contact with the speaker.  In group conversations, you have to signal to all others that you want to speak.  If you’re being ignored, make a shift in your position.  Your movement will steal the focus away from the speaker.

How exactly do we look while we speak and listen?  When we pause to choose our words, we usually look away from our audience.  Some people look to the left, some to the right.  Experts tell us that those who look away to the right are more scientifically minded.  Those who look to the left tend to be more religious or artistic.  If we’re gathering our thoughts to answer a question, the hemispheres of our brain determine which way we look.  If we’re asked a verbal question, we tend to look right to gather our thoughts.  A spatial question will cause most of us to look to the left.  In public speaking situations, skilled speakers look directly at their audience when they want to emphasize a point or display conviction.  At other times, they sweep with audience with their eyes taking a few seconds to “click” with each set of eyes.  Their goal is to appear as though they are having a mini-conversation with each member of the audience.

The basic components of eye behavior are easy to master, once you know how they work.  It is important not to make eye contact look deliberate or controlled.  The goal is always to use your eyes in a relaxed way so that you never make others feel uncomfortable.

© 2017 Jill Bremer