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[…] 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.
Eye contact is key to your social success
Research shows that a fear of making eye contact, or “gaze avoidance,” is often a “safety behavior” used by people with higher levels of social anxiety.2 This means that people who are more anxious in social situations will avoid eye contact as a means of reducing their nervousness.
The problem is that gaze avoidance is very obvious to the person you’re talking to, and it can send signals about you that aren’t necessarily true.
Says one study, “…gaze avoidance, particularly during moments when it is socially normative to direct eye contact, can have unintended consequences, such as communicating disinterest or coldness.” The study continues to say that higher levels of social anxiety resulting in gaze avoidance can cause people to be “perceived as less warm [or] less well-liked.”2
As you can see, eye contact can have pretty serious implications for your social life. Learning when and how to make eye contact is an important part of your social success.
Uncomfortable eye contact = Uncomfortable interactions
What Kim said in her email hits the nail on the head when it comes to awkward eye contact.
After a few seconds of eye contact I begin to feel awkward and this seems to make the other person feel it too.
It’s not necessarily the eye contact that is making the other person uncomfortable. It’s their understanding that you’re uncomfortable that is making them feel awkward.
Like we discussed in our article on avoiding awkward silences, a social interaction is only awkward if you make it awkward. This means that a moment becomes awkward when you begin to show signs of discomfort that signal to the other person that perhaps they should also be uncomfortable.
Eye contact itself is not awkward, but awkward eye contact is awkward. That is why we’ve developed this guide to teach you the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable eye contact and how to make eye contact in a non-awkward way.
Making and breaking eye contact
The first rule in making non-awkward eye contact is this: Whenever there’s a silence in the conversation, break eye contact. This includes those brief pauses 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 and can quickly cause an interaction to become awkward.
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.
When eye contact makes you uncomfortable
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 becomes easier 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 nervousness.
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.
Using eye contact to create attraction
If you want to create a tension with someone you’re attracted to, you should keep eye contact with that person even when no one’s talking. Combine this eye contact with a subtle smile and make sure that you don’t tense up your face if you feel uncomfortable. If you do, your gaze may be mistaken for aggression, which can have an opposite effect from what you’re trying to accomplish.
Studies show that simply looking at each other in the eyes without saying anything can make someone feel attracted to you.1 One study used MRIs of people’s brains to demonstrate how making eye contact with a person can cause you to be perceived as more attractive, whereas avoiding eye contact can decrease the amount of attraction the other person experiences when looking at you.
Eye contact and conflict
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.
Read more: How to have a difficult conversation.
Eye contact with a nervous person
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.
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- Kellerman, J., Lewis, J., & Laird, J. 1989. Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love. Journal of Research in Personality, 23. 145-161. doi: 10.1016/0092-6566(89)90020-2.
- Langer, J. K., Lim, M. H., Fernandez, K. C., & Rodebaugh, T. L. 2017. Social Anxiety Disorder is associated with reduced eye contact during conversation primed for conflict. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41. 220-229. doi: 10.1007/s10608-016-9813-x.
- Kampe, K. K., Frith, C. D., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, U. (2001). Reward value of attractiveness and gaze. Nature, 413(6856), 589.