Think Eye Contact Is Important? It’s Not That Simple

by HardTalk™ Team | Perspiration

Shake hands firmly. Speak up. Make eye contact. These are all things I was taught from an early age. They were valued in the world I grew up in and those who didn’t comply were judged. Those “filters” remain and, even now, when I know a lot better than to make decisions on such little information, a small part of me struggles to believe people who don’t make eye contact aren’t “dodgy” in some way.

This is a mistake because a lack of eye contact can mean different things to (and about) different people depending on where they’re from, their age, their gender, their education and, of course, the situation. We live in a very diverse world and one way of making the most of it is to realise that other people always make sense to themselves i.e. there is always a logic and if you want to understand the other person you have to get to that logic.

Beyond the usual “filters” mentioned above, that impact how we behave and how we react to the behaviours of others,  there may be neurological or psychological reasons such as psychopathy, PTSD, or alexithymia (sometimes known as “emotional blindness”) that would explain greater discomfort with eye contact. So would neuroticism, shyness, social anxiety, and autism.

One study showed how the higher a participants level of neuroticism, the more quickly they felt obliged to look away. The same participants also preferred it when their partner didn’t look at them. This is related to a specific aspect of neuroticism: withdrawal, which is related to feelings of inhibition and vulnerability and explains the desire to avoid eye contact.

That same tendency to avoid intimacy is at play for people with autism according to Nouchine Hadjikhani, the director of Harvards Neurolimbic Research Lab.  This is because the brains of people with autism showed unusually high activity in the subcortical pathway, which processes facial expressions. This “oversensitivity”  may lead people to try to decrease their exposure and so avoid looking others in the eye.

So Does Eye Contact Matter Then?

In short, yes and no.

It matters how we make eye contact because we can often get information from people’s eyes that we can’t glean through their words or tone of voice.

It matters that we make eye contact because it is associated with social connection and strong emotions as you can see in this interesting social experiment. 

But we’re judging and being judged for nonconforming levels of eye contact. The U.K. organization Right to Remain has even claimed that some applications for refugee status have been refused because they didnt make eye contact during interviews, and so were thought to be lying. Even though, as we’ve seen, something else entirely might be the reason or it might be that, in fact, increased eye contact suggests untruths!

To improve your ability to refrain from judging others and so missing an opportunity to understand them you should Stick to the Truths and Watch out for the Potentials. In other words, focus on the facts or what you saw and heard and then share your Potential, humbly and acknowledging that it’s simply your interpretation of what you’ve seen and that you might be wrong.

Improving your ability to hit the “sweet spot” with other people and the myriad different ways they like to make eye contact is a bit more complicated. There are too many variables at play – too many possible “filters” to be able to say, definitively, “this is how to make eye contact correctly”. Instead use the Process of Progress to focus on the result you want to achieve or how you want the other person to feel. If you don’t get that result you’ll need to change what you’re doing until you do.

So the next time someone you are speaking to is making too little, or too much eye contact, don’t pre-judge, look at the big picture with an open mind.

If you’d like to learn more about mastering the art and science of difficult conversations or HardTalk you can do so here; by signing up for the newsletter or sending us an email. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on this and other topics on LinkedIn or Twitter .

Dawn Metcalfe is an executive coach, facilitator, trainer and leadership advisor. She is also the author of Managing the Matrix (published in both English and Arabic) and HardTalk™. Dawn is the founder of Dubai based PDSi, which helps individuals and teams get even better at what they do, and has worked with business leaders around the world to change the way they see the world, their behaviour and their impact on others.


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