What Avoiding Eye Contact Means And What to Do About It

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I hate making eye contact, and I think it’s because I don’t know how to have normal conversations with people. I get embarrassed and look away because I feel awkward. I think it’s getting in the way of making connections, but eye contact makes me uncomfortable. How can I fix this?

There are many reasons why we avoid eye contact. It’s a common issue that many people struggle with. I am going to discuss some of the common reasons why it happens and what you can do to improve the problem.

If you can’t make eye contact during conversation, this article is for you. You can also check out our main guide on how to be more comfortable making eye contact.

Sections

What avoiding eye contact means

What does it mean when someone looks away while talking to you?

It’s normal for a person to look away occasionally while talking. However, breaking eye contact while talking can be a sign that the other person no longer feels connected to you. It can also be a sign that they want to change the subject or end the conversation.

If someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, try not to take it personally, and don’t draw attention to it. As you’ve learned, eye contact is usually an unconscious emotional response. They’re probably already aware of the pattern, and it’s not helpful for you to make them more self-conscious about it.

Instead, focus your attention on making the other person feel more comfortable. Smile at them. Listen to them fully. Validate their stories or feelings. Give them genuine compliments.

If you show that you enjoy their company, they will likely feel more relaxed in your presence.

Reasons why someone doesn’t make eye contact

There are many different reasons not to make eye contact. Here are some of the most common reasons:

  • Shyness
  • Feeling nervous or uncomfortable talking to someone
  • Social anxiety
  • Eye contact anxiety
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Feeling socially inferior

How to maintain eye contact

If you can’t make eye contact (or you avoid it), remember that you’re not alone. You’re not broken, and you’re not doomed to bad social interactions! Let’s get into some strategies that can help you keep eye contact.

1. Identify what situations you struggle with

When is eye contact most difficult for you? Do you notice you struggle more with certain kinds of people, like those in authority or strangers? Do you have any other triggers that affect eye contact?

Spend some time thinking about these situations. It’s a good idea to be aware of your patterns. If you have that awareness, you can make positive steps towards change.

2. Commit to letting it take time to improve

Mastering eye contact doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a social skill that requires time and practice. You won’t get it right away, and that’s okay. It’s a good idea to continuously remind yourself that change takes time.

3. Set small goals

Set a weekly eye contact goal for yourself. Make it small and manageable. For example, maybe you will try to make eye contact with a cashier next time you are at the grocery store. Or, you might focus on making eye contact with your boss when you ask for something.

If you want to achieve your goal, do everything you can to set yourself up for success. Write it down. Read it every morning. At the end of the week, write down how you did. Did you succeed? If you didn’t, what do you need to do differently next time?

Remember to celebrate the small milestones. Praise yourself for the progress you are making! It will encourage you to keep practicing.

4. Practice when you’re by yourself

It may feel strange, but you can practice communication skills by yourself. Have a conversation with yourself and look in the mirror as you talk. Try to maintain eye contact with yourself.

Try doing this a couple of times a week. You’ll eventually feel more comfortable holding eye contact. You might also become more aware of when you feel anxious or look away.

5. Practice with people you feel comfortable with

It’s always a good idea to practice new social skills with safe people. Your safe people may include your friends, partner, family, or a therapist.

If you feel comfortable, you can even tell them that you’re working on making better eye contact. Ask if they are willing to give you feedback or hold you accountable for your goal. Chances are, your loved ones would be happy to support you.

6. Take off your sunglasses

Sunglasses are a crutch, and wearing them won’t improve your eye contact skills. If you want to commit to growth, take them off when you talk to other people. Doing so allows you to focus on building this skill.

7. Establish eye contact right away

Don’t wait for the other person to take the lead. If you’re somewhere new, make eye contact with people in the room. Pair it with a smile. This gives confidence vibes, even if you feel very nervous inside.

8. Register the other person’s eye color

The next time you’re talking to someone new, look at their eye color. This process—looking and registering—takes about 4-5 seconds. That’s the right amount of time to maintain eye contact. Keep that in mind when you’re meeting someone new.

9. Draw an imaginary triangle to know where to look

This tip comes from The Muse, and it can be really helpful if you struggle with not knowing where to look when you make eye contact. If you feel awkward looking right in someone’s eyes, imagine a triangle around the other person’s eyes and mouth.

During your conversation, shift your gaze every 5-10 seconds from one point of the triangle to another. This is a subtle way to maintain eye contact without it feeling overly intimate.

10. Practice other nonverbal skills

Eye contact is an important part of body language, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. In fact, eye contact may become easier once you focus on improving your overall body language skills.

To start, turn your body towards the other person. This shows that you’re open and friendly. Put away any distracting items, like your phone. Relax your shoulders and try to maintain a confident posture. For specific tips on mastering body language, check out our master guide.

11. Lean back a little

When you’re talking to someone new, it’s okay to keep some distance between the two of you. You don’t want to invade someone’s personal space. Of course, the concept of personal space is somewhat subjective.

According to this article by The Spruce, you should aim to stand at least four feet away from strangers. For good friends or family, the rule of thumb is around 1.5-3 feet. If someone starts leaning away from you, it’s a sign you might be invading their space. Take a step back.

12. Practice breaking eye contact effectively

It’s a good idea to shift eye contact every 5 seconds or so. It takes about that long to complete a sentence or thought. Of course, you shouldn’t be counting the seconds during a conversation. Doing so will make you feel distracted.

The more you practice glancing around the triangle, the more the rhythm becomes more natural.

If you’re talking to a group, try to shift eye contact after each person speaks. Otherwise, you might look like you’re overly focused on one person.

13. Practice the 50/70 rule

According to this article by Michigan State University, it’s a good idea to try to focus on maintaining eye contact for about 50% of the time when you speak and 70% of the time when you listen.

It’s impossible to check these percentages (unless you video yourself!), but try to remind yourself of this number before you even begin the conversation. This mindset can help you stay focused on your goal.

14. When listening, look sideways instead of down

If you start feeling really uncomfortable, try to shift your gaze towards the side of the person rather than down at the floor. This may signal to them that you’re processing the conversation or trying to recall important information rather than feeling uncomfortable.

15. Try to blink less often

On average, we blink about 15-20 times per minute.[7] Blinking helps lubricate the cornea and protect your eyes from irritants. Of course, this is a natural process that you probably don’t think about.

But it’s possible that you may blink too much when you feel nervous. Try to think about how and when you blink. Awareness is the first step towards change. If the blinking doesn’t go away on its own, it’s worth talking about with your doctor to get an eye exam.

16. Challenge yourself to talk to more strangers

If you think about it, there are endless opportunities to practice eye contact. You just need to be willing to make an effort. Get out more often. When you run errands, make small talk with store employees. If you pass a neighbor while walking, make eye contact and smile.

17. Take a public speaking class

If the idea of talking in front of a large group makes you squirm, it might be worth getting out of your comfort zone. Many community colleges have public speaking classes. Even if the whole idea makes you incredibly nervous, these classes will force you to grow and try new skills.

18. Try therapy

Self-help techniques can make a big difference in helping you feel more confident around other people. But if you’re still struggling, it may be worth talking to a professional. This is especially important if you have a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and is much cheaper than going to an actual therapist's office. They are also cheaper than Talkspace for what you get. You can learn more about BetterHelp here.

19. Talk to your doctor about medication

If you struggle with severe anxiety, medication can help. There are numerous options, but it’s important to consider potential side effects. Consider talking to your doctor about the best choice for you.

Common questions

Why does eye contact matter so much?

Eye contact is an important type of nonverbal communication.[1] Eye contact—or the lack of it—can reveal your emotions. It also helps you build relationships and keep a conversation flowing.

Is it rude not to give eye contact?

Some people may perceive it as rude. Giving eye contact shows that you are friendly and approachable. It also shows that you’re paying attention to what they have to say. Even if people don’t find you rude, they might think you’re bored, distracted, or anxious during the conversation.

What does it mean to have good eye contact?

People with good eye contact maintain contact when they’re speaking. If they’re talking to a group, they share their eye contact evenly. They don’t stare the other person down. Instead, they usually try to mirror other people’s nonverbal cues.

Why do I avoid eye contact?

You might feel anxious, shy, or uncomfortable, especially if you don’t know the other person that well. These tend to be the most common reasons. You might also be distracted, which causes you to naturally focus on something else.

Is poor eye contact a sign of poor confidence?

Sometimes. If you can’t make eye contact with someone, it may mean that you feel intimidated or anxious around them. It can also mean you’re feeling insecure, which can explain why you keep looking away.

Can social anxiety disorder cause problems with eye contact problems?

People with social anxiety fear being negatively judged by others. They tend to be hyper-aware of their worries, and it can prevent them from feeling confident in social interactions. If you have social anxiety, you might struggle with making or maintaining eye contact.

Can autism or Aspergers cause problems with eye contact?

Yes. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects nonverbal communication and emotional processing. Problems with eye contact is one of the earliest signs of autism, and an adult with autism will often have the same issue.[2]

How does trauma affect eye contact?

People with histories of trauma may struggle to make eye contact. This happens because trauma can fundamentally affect brain development. They may associate eye contact with threat, pain, or fear.[3]

What if I have a fear of eye contact?

It’s a normal fear, but you can work through this fear with practice. Remember that most people feel a little nervous during social interactions. But the more you can work on this skill, the more confident you will feel.

How do I know when to make eye contact with strangers?

Pay attention to their body language. Are they making eye contact with you? Are they smiling and appearing interested in conversation? If so, these are good signs that they want to connect, even if it’s just for quick small talk.

How do different cultures perceive eye contact?

In America, most people view eye contact as a necessary part of human connection. People equate eye contact with confidence and respect. But eye contact rules are different in other places. For example, in some Eastern countries, eye contact may be seen as rude or disrespectful.[4]

In general, it’s a good idea to try to educate yourself on these cultural differences. If you want to make new friends, you need to be open to learning perspectives. If you plan on traveling to a different country, it’s customary to learn the basic rules and etiquette.

Understand that eye contact is important for survival

Eye contact isn’t just about connecting with someone and enjoying their company. It’s also a primitive need. We use nonverbal communication to determine if other people are safe and trustworthy.

If you spend enough time with a baby, you might notice that they intensely follow your gaze. Studies show that babies are more likely to follow a caretaker’s eyes than just their head movements. That’s because we’re instinctually wired to use eye contact to connect with other people.[5]

Remember that good eye contact is a two-way street

Don’t be too hard on yourself if eye contact is challenging. Connecting with others is intimate and can make you feel vulnerable. Both people need to work at it, and it’s a really common struggle!

Research shows that we feel most connected when both people are making appropriate eye contact with one another. This is because the direct exchange of eye contact stimulates the autonomic nervous system[6]

Too much eye contact can be unsettling

Good eye contact is all about balance. Too little eye contact can make you look anxious or insecure. But too much eye contact can come across as creepy. It can also make you look aggressive or intimidating.

Avoid staring at people. If you’re concerned you might be doing this, check out our master guide on maintaining confident eye contact without overdoing it.

Show references +

Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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