July 20, 2024
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July 20, 2024
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Eye Contact, Part I: Getting and Holding Someone’s Attention

A number of years ago, I was trying hard to get support for an undertaking at work, and so when I finally got a meeting with a key stakeholder I was determined to make the best of it. When the big day came I arrived at the senior VP’s office prepared to capture and hold her attention. We sat at a coffee table in the corridor of the busy office, and I thought that was a bonus because she would probably be more relaxed there; I didn’t realize she would be distracted by the many suppliers, clients and executives walking past. It was like a having a meeting at a circus.

Five minutes into our meeting I noticed her gaze shift from my eyes to somewhere over my shoulder, and without thinking I turned around to see what caught her eye. It was her boss; I thought nothing of it, and when I turned back to her she looked a little embarrassed for the disruption. Despite her best efforts it happened again, and this time I tried something different. I redoubled my efforts to make eye contact as I leaned slightly forward, and a surprising thing happened: she shifted in her seat, adjusted her glasses and fixed her eye contact on me. It was like she was saying, “Sorry I have been rude; it will not happen again.”

It is quite conceivable that a short book could be written on the subject of eye contact; this article, however, is limited to how we can get someone’s attention and keep it with eye contact.

We discern when people are looking at us even from across a room, and if they flash their eyebrows in surprise (delight) as they look at us we subconsciously take it as a cue that they want to engage. We will glance at someone—usually sidelong when we want to go unnoticed—so a longer stare is a strong indicator that we want to register our presence with the person we are gazing at.

The placement of our gaze on someone can tell a great deal about our intentions, too:

Our gaze forms a triangle from the eyes to the forehead when we’re all business.

Turning the triangle down from the eyes to the mouth will signal that we’re friends.

Extending the triangle from the eyes down to the chest will indicate that we have more romantic intentions (or creepy ones, depending on the context).

We can certainly get someone’s attention by glaring or just staring at them—when they look away, stare, and when their eyes meet ours, stare—but that gets creepy fast. So, just how much eye contact is recommended?

Generally, we say 70 percent is the sweet spot—that is, seven seconds out of 10. I suggest that while we’re listening we can increase that to 90 percent, but while we’re talking, 50 percent should be plenty because it is very natural to look away to formulate our thoughts and then make eye contact to check in and confirm that we are being understood and to re-engage if necessary.

As in all aspects of our communication, variation keeps it interesting, and while occasionally breaking eye contact brings some variation, there are other things we can do. Most of us never think about it because it happens naturally that our eye gaze shifts slightly around our friend or colleague’s face. If we’re expressive then our eyes narrow in concentration and they open wider in surprise.

Our expressions are usually congruent (except when we are trying to cover our true feelings) with the idea we’re discussing; however; in a recent workshop, a client told me that they don’t have expression in their eyes when they speak, and this is not unusual—some people are just not expressive. I advised this client to practice eye gestures that are congruent to what she was saying: if she was recalling information then shift your gaze upwards, and if you’re formulating your thoughts then look down. This type of eye contact “avoidance” actually makes eye contact more interesting, which helps keep the conversation engaging.

Part II of this series will follow next month.

For more information or to inquire about how body-language training can help you increase sales, improve your presentations, your interview skills, management of people or other, please email [email protected].

By Anthony Awerbuch


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