[…] after a few seconds of eye contact I begin to feel awkward and this seems to make the speaker feel it too. Where should I look when listening to people speaking and how do I go back to focusing on what they are saying when this happens? – Kim
The Internet is full of advice on how to make eye contact, and most of that advice does more bad than good. It’s a mistake to believe that more eye contact = better.
Just like Kim realized, just staring someone down doesn’t work.
Today I want to talk about how to keep the right amount of eye contact, how to know when to look away, and how to feel at ease maintaining eye contact if you usually feel uncomfortable doing it.
Too little eye contact makes us come off as submissive. Too much makes us come off as aggressive. When we understand the psychology behind eye contact and can adjust it to what’s needed in a certain situation we end up in the middle sweet spot. People in this sweet spot come off as likable.
Luckily, there are some good rules that can help guide us to the right amount of eye contact.
Whenever there’s a silence in the conversation, break eye contact. This includes those second-short breaks whenever you or the one you’re talking to thinks about what to say next. Maintaining eye contacts during these moments comes off as overly intense.
As you break eye contact, don’t focus on any specific object, and especially not another person, as that indicates that you have diverted your attention to that other object or person. We want to look into the horizon, into a wall or down the floor, just as we do when we’re thinking or processing information.
Whenever anyone talks, keep eye contact. As soon as you’re done thinking and continue talking, or as soon as someone else continues talking, you want to immediately resume eye contact. I’ve made the mistake many times to not resume eye contact at once as I start talking, and I’ve been surprised by how often people interrupt me when that happens (especially in group conversations). I believe this is because when you look away, there’s no connection, and when there’s no connection, people just don’t get immersed into what you have to say.
It’s just as important to maintain eye contact when you’re talking as when you’re listening to someone else talking.
An exception is if you’re walking or sitting side by side – then it’s natural to keep less eye contact.
You stand out from the rest if you’re able to immerse yourself into whatever someone’s talking about. You make people feel seen and heard, and that makes it rewarding to be around you.
Likewise, when you’re able to maintain good eye contact whenever you’re talking (except for when you’re formulating your next sentence in your head) you’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to catch the attention of the listeners.
In groups, distribute your eye contact evenly. When you’re the one talking in the group conversation, you want to make sure that everyone feels seen by you. Why? Because ignoring someone for more than just a few seconds makes them feel like they aren’t part of the conversation. When two or more in a group conversation feel slightly left out, the group is soon divided into several parallel conversations.
How to keep eye contact when you feel uncomfortable doing it
As you’ve probably noticed, it’s always harder to maintain eye contact with someone who intimidates you (because they’re taller than you, or you’re attracted to them, or you for some reason feel inferior to them).
On the other hand, it’s easy to keep eye contact with people you feel superior to.
When we improve our self-esteem and mentally position ourselves on an equal level to those we come across, it’s natural for us to keep more eye contact.
However, improving self-esteem is a process that takes years. Here is my most powerful advice to instantly be able to maintain eye contact:
Study their eyes. Instead of forcing yourself to “look people in the eye”, try to study people’s eyes: Their color, their texture, the size of the pupil. If you’re further away and can’t see those details, you can simply focus on the eyebrows. When we “occupy” ourselves with analyzing someone’s eyes, we use other circuits in our brains than the ordinary pathways of keeping eye contact that can trigger our nervosity.
This is a great “hack” that instantly lets you maintain eye contact more easily, and be more at ease doing it. Doing this will kick-start your eye contact. However, to long-term transform your conversations, you want to instead…
…focus your full attention on what’s being said. As I’ve shown before, we become less self-aware (and thereby less nervous and more at ease keeping eye contact) when we focus our attention on whatever subject we’re currently talking about. You can interrupt self-conscious thoughts like “I wonder if I look nervous” and instead “force” yourself to be fully focused on the topic. When you do, you’ll have an easier time keeping eye contact.
You can do this shift by (in your own head) asking questions about the current topic to arouse your curiosity. “She said that she was in Bali, what was that like? Was it fun? Did she become tired from the jet-lag?”. When we preoccupy ourselves with questions like these about the current subject, we have an easier time moving the conversation forward (by asking any of those questions that pop up), feeling more at ease that we have something to say if the conversation dies out and feeling less self-aware (because we’re focused on the topic). Therefore, we’ll have an easier time maintaining eye contact.
When you want to create attraction, look more
If you want to create a tension with someone you’re attracted to and help create attraction between you, you want to keep eye contact with that person even when no one’s talking. You want to combine this eye contact with a subtle smile and make sure that you don’t tension up your face if you feel uncomfortable. If you do, your gaze can be mistaken for aggression.
Studies show that simply looking each other in the eyes without saying anything can make someone feel attracted to you. (Ref: Kellerman, Joan & Lewis, James & Laird, James. (1989). Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love. Journal of Research in Personality. 23. 145-161. 10.1016/0092-6566(89)90020-2. )
When you’re in a conflict, you might want to look away
One interesting study showed that when we’re in a conflict with someone, we should look down at the floor. That improves our chances of solving the conflict. On the other hand, if we maintain eye contact, we instead risk worsening the conflict. When we come off as more submissive, we come off as less of a threat and show that we just want to solve the conflict.
If you’re talking to someone who’s nervous, you want to keep less eye contact
If you’re talking to someone who’s keeping very little eye contact and you want to build rapport with that person, it can be clever to keep less eye contact as well. The same goes for all traits that relate to confidence. If you maintain great eye contact, talk with a loud voice and come off as highly self-confident, you’ll probably intimidate someone who’s nervous. People like those they can relate to, so it makes sense to tone down our own self-confident traits to be able to connect also with those who aren’t as confident.
These general rules about eye contact will take you far, but if you want to read even more about it, you can check out my eye contact guide here.
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