Do you REALLY know what you’re doing?
Most people think they make eye contact perfectly well in a business situation. Most people fail to recognise that what they think of as eye contact is not really eye contact at all – at least not in the influential way that they expect.
This is hardly surprising. If you are at the unconscious incompetent stage of learning (where you don’t know what you don’t know), it takes someone to point out any lack of awareness before you achieve that ‘aha’ moment.
Once you realise your shortcomings, you can take action to overcome them. When you start making more effective eye contact, your business relationships will improve and work is likely to become more efficient and productive – and potentially more profitable.
Make powerful connections
Meeting someone’s gaze is one of the most intimate and powerful things you can do. It allows you to communicate and connect with another person on a conscious and unconscious level.
There are strong theories that maintaining this type of connection might be the key to happiness, well-being and longevity.
Let’s think about that realistically. When you are deep in conversation with your loved ones you look them directly in the eye. There’s no embarrassment, no concern, just a deep sense of connection.
When you want to win an argument, you look your adversary right in the eye. The two of you undergo an eye-to-eye power struggle and the loser usually looks away and backs down.
When you are giving a talk, meeting a client, pitching for business, or facing an investors’ gathering, eye contact is just as important. If you can make eye contact effectively, this will ensure you stand out from the crowd and it will tell those around you that you are an expert, not an amateur.
Connect with and understand other people
When you address other people – whether in an enormous conference hall or at a small meeting – true eye contact will draw people in and encourage them to listen. They will feel you are talking to them personally.
To make eye contact in a business setting, keep your gaze to a triangle between the other person’s eyes and their upper forehead. Looking down towards their nose or mouth is a social gaze, and is generally considered inappropriate at work.
It is, of course, rude to look away when someone is talking to you. So when you look people in the eye, they are much more likely to look back at you, creating an interpersonal connection that will help you ‘sell’ your message and gain buy-in to your suggestions.
Maintaining eye contact also helps you figure out how people are responding to you. When you make eye contact effectively with someone, they may well give you a nod, a smile, or some other acknowledgement that they are listening.
If you do not get a positive response, or if you feel that people are losing concentration, this is a very powerful sign that you need to change what you are doing. You might think about altering your pace or devising another way to keep them engaged and alert.
Getting it wrong and getting it right
There’s eye contact and eye contact. Staring is rude. Connecting gently is powerful.
So how do you connect powerfully?
First let’s look at what to avoid, using the example of Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party. Speaking at a pre-election debate between seven party leaders, Mr Miliband directed most of his answers to the viewers at home, staring directly at them through the camera lens rather than addressing the studio audience or his fellow politicians.
Mr Miliband obviously hadn’t read the scientific research about the use of maintaining constant eye contact to change people’s minds. It doesn’t work. It just makes people feel uncomfortable. In fact, research demonstrates that holding eye contact for too long encourages the recipient of the stare to resist persuasion. It is completely counterproductive.
Contrast Mr Miliband’s robotic style with that former US President Bill Clinton, well-renowned for being a charismatic speaker. His performance is among the best. He connects with others through very careful and expert eye contact.
Windows to the soul
Your eyes can reveal your innermost feelings – often inadvertently – and this can put you at a disadvantage.
The former Premier of Alberta provides a classic example of this. In a debate between Canada’s political leaders, she made eye contact with her rival while her eyes flashed incredibly hostile and negative emotions. This made her look very odd, but she was probably unaware of her facial expressions until she saw the footage after the event.
You won’t always have TV footage to help you improve, so it is best to keep negative emotions under wraps.
Make eye contact to create rapport
When you converse with another person, that person should always be your main point of focus, but your line of vision should not remain static. If you stare at them without breaking eye contact, they will quickly start to feel uncomfortable.
It is generally acceptable to hold eye contact for around three to ten seconds. Any longer than this might make you appear aggressive. Or romantic. People need a little respite from your gaze, or their discomfort might prevent them from taking in your words and distort any message they are trying to convey.
Research shows that in social conversation people normally look at one another for around 30% – 60% of the time. For people in love, that figure rises to 75% of the time. And for business conversation it can be anything up to 90% of the time.
There seems to be more invested in a business meeting than in a loving relationship. Perhaps the stakes are higher when money is concerned. You can usually kiss and make up with your significant other after an argument, but if you miss out on a big deal, there are no second chances.
It’s fine to look away
It is hard to speak and make eye contact at the same time. When you talk, you need moments for your brain to work out what to say, and this usually causes you to avert your gaze.
A speaker always looks away more than a listener. It is even acceptable to close your eyes briefly, as this helps your brain to retrieve information. Don’t be afraid to do this if necessary – it won’t seem rude.
The duration of gaze in business conversation is gender specific. When two businesswomen speak, they spend 80% – 90% of the time looking at each other. It’s the same when a man and a woman speak at work. But when two men converse in an office situation, they hold each other’s gaze for only 60% – 70% of the time.
Why men and women make eye contact differently
I suspect the gender differences in eye contact relate to the different neurophysiology and/or neuropsychology of men and women when it comes to listening. Research suggests that when men listen, this activates only the left half of their brain, which stimulates changes in the direction of their gaze.
We all move our eyes to access information in our brain. There is evidence to show that eye movements can prompt memory recall and there is a theory that we also move our eyes to create ideas.
The psychological discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) believes it is possible to recognise what is happening in someone’s mind by watching the direction of their gaze.
NLP suggests that when one brain hemisphere is active, we move our eyes away from that hemisphere and look in the opposite direction. In other words, when the left side of our brain is active, we are liable to look to the right.
However, while there is research to support the ‘direction of gaze’ theory, many scientists and NLP practitioners admit it is contentious.
It also clashes with the well-held theory that men tend to create solutions while they listen. In NLP terms, problem solving involves looking to the left. Yet we know that the left side of men’s brains are stimulated by listening, so as far as NLP is concerned, they should be looking right. I take the NLP map with a large dose of salt.
Leaving the actual direction of gaze aside, if both sides of the brain are activated, as they are when women listen, the concept of ‘opposite direction’ does not apply. In this context there is no such thing as an ‘opposite direction’, therefore there is no stimulus for a woman to look away from a speaker. It follows that there is less break in eye contact. It appears that women literally stay more focused on the person speaking, which is why they make more eye contact in a business situation.
The eyes have it
Your eyes could seriously let you down if you are not careful. Or they could be the making of you if you use them well. Simple techniques can significantly improve how you make eye contact, and can help you become more successful, respected and influential at work.
While this article provides food for thought, it is only a glance into the window of a world of information about eye contact. It can’t offer individual feedback about how well (or otherwise) you make eye contact. Neither can it advise you on a personal level how to enhance your visual connections with other people. That can only be achieved in person.
I’m passionate about helping leaders connect with others more deeply, and that includes developing the skills of optimum eye-contact. So if you’d like to assess your style and techniques in creating those all-important interpersonal connections, and if you are a leader who wants to communicate more successfully, drop me a line and let’s talk. I’ll be watching out for you.