Whether you’re talking to one person or a roomful, you want to use all the tools you have available, don’t you?
That’s how you’ll connect with people, demonstrate your confidence and expertise, and give them the information you have to share. It’s how you’ll persuade them to believe you and perhaps buy from you.
The most powerful communication tool is eye contact.
When someone looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what’s on their mind, what impression does that create for you?
They’re serious, right? What they’re telling you is important. They’re telling the truth. They’re confident about what they’re saying, and about your need to know it. They’re focused on this conversation and on you. You can trust them.
And what about someone who looks over your shoulder as they talk? Or at the floor? Or off to the side? Anywhere but directly in your eyes.
You know they’re hiding something. Or they’re not sure about what they’re saying. They may not really mean it; it might even be an out and out lie. Maybe they’re just shy or self-conscious rather than dishonest. But when people evade our eyes, we assume we can’t quite trust them.
Eye contact can be a challenge.
Most people in my programs tell me they’re just fine with eye contact. “It’s no problem at all,” they say. Then we have an experience or two.
Surprise! This eye contact thing isn’t as easy as it looks.
Despite their best intentions, people find themselves looking off to the side or up at the ceiling. Their eyes dart around the room. Some people close their eyes for longer than a natural blink, bringing down the curtain to cut off contact. Sometimes they smirk or giggle. They can’t sit still. They’re uncomfortable—and it shows.
What makes us look away?
A guy who had a hard time with it it in a workshop told me, “I haven’t looked at my wife that long in years!” He got a laugh. And he was on to something. Steady, direct eye contact can feel intimate. You know, “windows to the soul” and all that jazz.
So, eye contact is a powerful way to connect with another human being. And some of us don’t want to connect, at least not with the human being in front of us.
People might feel vulnerable when they look someone in the eye. It makes them uneasy, so they take refuge by glancing away…sometimes more than glancing
And then there’s a natural impulse known as eye accessing cues.
Some are surprised by how hard it is to maintain eye contact. Truth is, looking up … or off to the side … or down at the floor is completely normal.
Most people, when they recall an image, look up and to their left, because in their mind’s eye, the past is on their left. Trying to picture a two-headed purple elephant, they’d look up and to their right—if they could see the purple pachyderm it would be in the future.
Remember the song for the first dance at your wedding? You’ll likely look left (to the past) and sideways—at your ear. What is the sound of one hand clapping? You might search for that looking toward your right ear, because it hasn’t happened yet.
And we often look down, at our body, when we’re trying to find the words for physical sensations or inner feelings.
Because everyone’s eyes tend to track with our thoughts, there’s nothing inherently wrong with looking away as we talk.
But what if your client asks, “Bottom line, how much is this going to cost?” Or your manager wonders want went wrong with your project?
You don’t want to look around the room for an answer. No. You want to look them right in the eye and answer the question, so you come across as honest, confident and focused—they trust what you say because of that eye contact.
That’s why we practice.
With practice, we can override those impulses and the self-consciousness. We can use eye contact intentionally, even strategically. Notice when you want to throw up a barrier and resist that impulse.
Yes, it takes effort. I know it can be done though, because I had to do it.
As a new presentation skills trainer, I was shocked to discover I was terrible at eye contact. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d been in radio for 25 years! That’s a lot of talking to people without ever seeing them—or being seen.
Contact means contact
People will suggest looking at someone’s forehead, or the bridge of their nose. Faking it, because eye contact is uncomfortable.
Don’t even think about it. First of all, they’re not fooled. Secondly, the connection we make with real eye contact benefits both of us.
Real eye contact means you’re not pulling your head back, so you end up looking down your nose at the person. It looks snooty. And nobody’s charisma comes from their chin.
But don’t over-correct. I had a client who tilted her head the other way, so she was looking at us from under her brows—it looked almost mean!
And, you’ll run into people who turn their face away and their eyes back toward you. That’s not it, either – don’t give us the side-eye!
You’ll make the best connection with full frontal eye contact. Here’s a visual that might help. Imagine your face is a spotlight. Shine it on the person you’re talking to. Bathe them in the light of your attention.
You’ll notice the difference in the quality of the connections you make.
Eye contact seem daunting to you? Or you’ve experienced the shift that can happen when you lock eyes with someone.
Post a comment below to share your story.
PS: Different cultures have different rules about eye contact. Everything here applies to doing business (or life) in America, with Americans. Internationally, eye contact is a whole different story. We’ll take that up another time, along with this question: Where the heck do you look when you’re talking to a group of people?