What are you looking at?! Hopefully ME if you are talking to me. But what if I’m judging you? What am I thinking about you? Do I make you nervous when I’m staring back at you?
For these reasons, maintaining eye contact can be tough. Yet, in many cultures and settings (i.e., in the United States), eye contact can help you to convey that you are trustworthy, respectful, and sincere. Eye contact can help you to influence others or establish an emotional connection. It allows you to give some feedback to the individual you are interacting with, and it provides opportunities for you to see if they are understanding the meaning of the message you are trying to relay. Thus, maintaining balanced eye contact can be critical to your accomplishments in personal and professional relationships.
But what is meaningful, balanced eye contact? Too much, and you might be seen as intense and too little may cause the receiver to believe you are aloof. Thus, you become more of a distraction and there is a chance that anything you are saying, important or not, may not be heard.
A few techniques for making or maintaining eye contact:
According to the Wall Street Journal’s article, Look Me in the Eye Already, individuals should maintain eye contact for approximately 7-10 seconds in one-on-one conversations, and for 3-5 seconds with individuals in group settings. Thus, you should look individuals in the eye, briefly look away (e.g., look up as if you are thinking about something) and then, make eye contact again.
Just because you hear eye contact is important, does not mean you should engage in the creepy stare. This is why looking away periodically is important. Additionally, if the individual is referencing something (e.g., something on his/her computer or something on your resume), take those opportunities to look away from the person’s eyes. You want to come across as confident and trustworthy rather than awkward, possessed, or even infatuated with the person.
For public speaking or speaking to a group, you should look at individuals on all sides of you. A colleague was recently telling me how she was on a Board that invited a guest speaker to their last meeting. She was excited to hear what this individual had to say, yet disappointed because the speaker did not look at anyone except the Board President the entire meeting. My colleague was so preoccupied with the fact that this speaker did not take her eyes off the Board President (even when others would try to chime in the conversation) that she did not remember a word this person said. The oblivious speaker’s eye contact (or lack thereof) made her and others in the room feel unimportant, and it made the Board President uncomfortable. Thus, when speaking to a group or when being interviewed by a group of people, be intentional about looking at those all around you. Although easier said than done when you are trying to convey a message or are under pressure with an interview, this balance looking to your left, in front of you, and to your right) while also not simply profusely bobbing your head around will help you to gain the respect, trust, or connection you are looking for and deserve.
Video tape yourself, or practice with friends, and think critically about the messages you are sending with your eyes!