Did you know that eye contact is like Goldilocks and the three bears?
Too much eye contact is instinctively felt to be rude, hostile and condescending; and in a business context, it may also be perceived as a deliberate intent to dominate, intimidate, belittle, or make “the other” feel at a disadvantage. (Which was how Goldilocks felt when the bears caught her eating their porridge). So unless you have in mind doing one of those things, it’s better to avoid too much eye contact.
Too little, on the other hand, can make you appear uneasy, unprepared, and insincere. In its analysis of patients’ complaints, for example, one large county hospital found, that 9-out-of-10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact; a failure which was generally interpreted as “lack of caring.”
“Just the right” amount of eye contact - the amount that produces a feeling of mutual likability and trustworthiness - will vary with situations, settings, personality types, gender and cultural differences. As a general rule, though, direct eye contact ranging from 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation - more when you are listening, less when you are speaking - should make for a comfortable productive atmosphere.
And did you know these other facts about eye contact?
• Eye contact produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection that extends even to drawn or photographed eyes; a fact demonstrated by Researchers at Cornell University who manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on several Trix cereal boxes, asked a panel of adults to choose one, and discovered, as they expected, that the box most frequently chosen was the one on which the rabbit was looking directly at them, rather than away.
• We reduce eye contact when we are talking about something shameful or embarrassing, when we are sad or depressed, and when we are accessing internal thoughts or emotions.
• We increase eye contact when dealing with people we like, admire, or who are in power. In more intense or intimate conversations we naturally look at each another more often and hold that gaze for longer periods of time. In fact, we judge relationships by the amount of eye contact exchanged: the greater the eye contact, the closer the relationship.
• Females look more at those they are talking to than do males. That’s one of the reasons women prefer a face-to-face conversation, while men are content to talk standing side-by-side.
• We avoid eye contact in elevators, subways, crowded buses or trains - in elevators we face the door, in the others we stare at our Smartphones - because it helps us manage the insecurity of having our personal space invaded. Waiters may avoid eye contact to send customers the signal, “I’m too busy to deal with you right now.” Employees often keep their eyes down when the boss appears with a tricky question or looks like he’s going to ask for volunteers.
• The biggest body language myth about liars is that they avoid eye contact. While some liars (most often, children) find it difficult to lie while looking directly at you, many liars, especial the most brazen, actually overcompensate to "prove" that they are not lying by making too much eye contact and holding it too long.
• If a speaker actively seeks out eye contact when talking, he or she is judged to be more believable, confident and competent.
Eye contact is so powerful a force because it is connected with humans’ earliest survival patterns. Children who could attract and maintain eye contact, and therefore increase attention, had the best chance of being fed and cared for. Today, newborns instinctively lock eyes with their caregivers. And the power of that infantile eye contact still retains its impact on the adult mind. Whether it’s shifty-eyed guilt or wide-eyed innocence, we automatically assign enormous credence to the signals we give and get when we look into each other in the eyes.
Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Helps - or Hurts - How You Lead" and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at http://CarolKinseyGoman.com