In an episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” two of the characters, a man and a woman, were walking down a city street late at night. They were confronted by a man with a gun who demanded they hand over their valuables.
Immediately, the man told the woman to “look down,” and he did the same. They proceeded to hand over their rings, watches, and wallets, all the while looking down at the ground. When they had finished, the man said to the robber, “We didn’t see anything, everything is OK.”
The deed done, the robber made his getaway.
The scene made clear the power of eye contact.
If they had continued to look up, they would have witnessed the entire scene, and the robber’s face. By avoiding eye contact, they broke the connection, and were able to separate themselves from the situation.
Perhaps the instruction to “look down” was a way to prevent the robber from seeing the fear in their eyes. They also didn’t have to witness the act of handing over their possessions to this stranger, or read his eyes as well.
Eye contact engages, and through it, we can read the other person’s emotions.
In the case above, NOT making eye contact was the better approach to the situation. For the sake of safety, they did not want to make a connection with the marauder.
But in business and personal communications, effective use of eye contact can play a significant role in influence and effectiveness. Used with discretion, it allows us to connect appropriately, while also protecting our character and perception.
Here are some tips to remember when communicating face-to-face with an employee, customer, colleague, friend, or anytime you need to get your point across.
1. When speaking to someone who must remain seated, meet them at eye level.
Instead of bending from the waist, which can be seen as aggressive, bend at the knees, lower yourself down until you are at eye level, or sit down. This allows you to make eye contact easily.
Several photos of the Royal family show how Prince William does this with his son. It is a sign of intentional, non-aggressive listening and genuine interest.
This is especially effective in communicating with employees. Having a face-to-face conversation with both of you seated is a sign of mutual respect. And if they are standing, matching their stance will create more open communication than if you stay seated behind your desk.
2. Relax, take a deep breath, and try not to open your eyes too wide.
Wide open, round eyes give the impression of surprise or disbelief. Your eyes will say you have already made a judgment before the other person has finished speaking.
3. Adjust your gaze so that you are not staring.
Ten seconds of eye contact is comfortable for the other person. After that, it can appear as though you are angry or, depending on your facial expression and voice tone, flirting.
4. “Eye surfing” is a dead giveaway that you are not listening, find the conversation boring, or are scanning the room looking for someone more important.
Focus on the person you are talking to, and if you need to shift attention, politely excuse yourself.
5. Eye movements are a dead giveaway.
Rolling your eyes, rubbing, or putting your hand over your eyes while someone is speaking is open to the other person’s interpretation. You may have an itch, but they may think you’re questioning their point or think that what they are saying is ridiculous. They may interpret it as boredom or disinterest. Even arching your brows can give the impression you don’t believe what the other person is saying.
6. When speaking to an audience, be sure to make eye contact with people in all areas of the room.
Focus on one person for just a few seconds, and then move on to others. At the end of the presentation, everyone in the room will feel as if you were speaking directly to them. Focusing on the back wall or the teleprompter, as many inexperienced speakers will do, and looking over the heads of your audience are sure-fire ways to lose their interest and engagement.
No matter your position in an organization, these six tips for good eye contact will help you effectively engage because, in good communication…”the eyes have it.”
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