Eye contact is normal. Eye contact is natural. Eye contact is healthy. Infants instinctually have a strong desire to gaze into others’ eyes. Yet, why is it that so many adults with fairly good interpersonal communication skills have long since “unlearned” this fundamental and indispensable nonverbal behavior?
In the science of nonverbal communication, the most crucial portion of the body is the face. And the most important part of the face are the eyes- the eyelids, the eyebrows and the regions around the eyes.
Image courtesy of litratcher’s Flickr photostream.
When it comes to body language, people often ask, “Does good eye contact mean I have to look the other person directly in the eye all the time?” (or some variation of it). The short answer is definitely “NO.” Here’s the long answer: If you stare directly into one eye of a person- or switch back and forth between her/his eyes, it quickly becomes too psychologically intense. It is almost always interpreted (depending on the other signals and the context) as predatory behavior, anger, sexual attraction or deception.
If you’re participating in healthy conversation (and not experiencing the above emotions), “eye contact” is effectively defined as looking semi-randomly in an area whose borders surround the eyes by about two centimeters. This would be between 30 and 70 percent of the time. Although they’re not in this “eye contact ellipse” (ECE), it’s important not to stare at the forehead (lest you intimidate) or at the mouth (as this will send signals of sexual interest). The reason that I said “semi-randomly” is that you should briefly fixate on one of the person’s eyes. You should then quickly (and very briefly) fixate on some other portion of the person’s face within (and sometimes outside) of the ECE. You should then return to the same or opposite eye (Remember, it is important to NOT gaze within the ECE the balance of the time). These rapid eye movements or saccades, occur naturally and subconsciously during healthy conversation. They also occur other times such as during reading, thinking, etc. Staring occurs when eye movements and blinking are greatly diminished or absent. We are not aware of these patterns of eyelid movements the vast majority of the time – although sometimes they occur at the edge of consciousness. There are occasions though for different reasons that these do become conscious acts. With rare exception, a person should never fixate on one area too long (two seconds is a good limit) or too intensely (with lacking blinking or eye movements).
Defining “eye contact” as sometimes not looking directly into someone’s eyes, but close to them – may seem somewhat counterintuitive. But this is what we do during healthy conversation. Generally the speaker has a natural decrease of this “eye contact” – closer to 30 percent; the listener, on the other hand, experiences an eye contact crescendo – closer to 70 percent, most of the time. If we want to build and engender rapport, we need to be aware of and avoid this tendency to decrease eye contact when our role changes to speaker.
As I noted earlier, when a person tells a lie, her/his eye contact will often increase to what most people consider “staring”. This is a great example of an overcompensating behavior. It is also true that the opposite may occur– a dramatic drop-off of eye contact during lying. It is important to compare the amount and pattern of eye contact in dynamic context – contrasting the times before and after the suspected moments of deception. If a lie is suspected, the specific subject matter should be revisited. Using the Socratic Method and noting whether similar patterns of nonverbal behavior are displayed will help in validating or refuting deception. This is only one of many nonverbal techniques used in detecting deception.
Although an example of an exception, in certain cultures a lack of eye contact is considered a sign of respect. Yet in many countries, very little or no eye contact during an encounter, is a signal of extreme disrespect. Sometimes, it is an effort to avoid an escalation of negative emotions.
Another example where eye contact is very crucial, yet under delivered, is during a handshake. It’s amazing how many “professionals” lack this important component of the greeting. A helpful technique is to observe the color of the other person’s eyes (irises) during the handshake. And while noting this, repeat a positive and sincere mantra, silently to yourself. This may sound trite or mawkish, but it works. I’ve been practicing this since I’ve been a teenager. Doing so has the ability to bring you closer and to build true rapport during the critical and vastly underappreciated few seconds of a handshake/greeting.
Very few of us are aware of just how important the eyes are when it comes to smiling. One requirement for a smile to be sincere is there must be a dynamic and momentary partial closure of the eyelids. But it is mainly a secondary, passive closing. Without a partial eyelid closure the smile is insincere – no exceptions. This does not mean the person as a whole is insincere – merely in that moment, regardless of what the mouth looks like or what words are being spoken – they are “pushing out” what is known as a “Social Smile”. They are acting happy (or happier) than their true emotions – in that moment.
Since the eyes are the only part of your central nervous system that make contact with the outside of your body – the old adage of “The eyes are the windows to the soul” has basis in medical fact. The practice and study of eye contact is just one aspect of the immense nonverbal value of this most precious and mysterious organ. Ignore it at your own risk.
The Language Lab Guest Blogger: As a Body Language Expert and a board-certified physician with over 20 years of experience, Dr. G. Jack Brown coaches, consults and speaks on the subject of body language. Dr. Brown’s clients include C-level executives, law enforcement, politicians, attorneys, high-end sales professionals, physicians and private individuals. He develops and hones their nonverbal communication skills in negotiation, sales, projecting confidence, avoiding intimidation, romance & dating, sincerity-detection, building rapport skills and especially lie-detection. Dr. Brown also consults and aides directly in negotiations, voir dire and depositions.
Dr. G. Jack Brown can be contacted via his website at www.BodyLanguageSuccess.com.