My friends don’t have it easy. They always serve as unknowing test subjects in my social experiments. I write “unknowing,” but I do feel like they suspect at least something. One clue is that their first question always seems to be: “What book are you currently reading?”. Probably a veiled attempt to foresee the experiment they are about to undergo.
Meeting me for drinks is like Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button. Did I just read up on comedy, or on vulnerability? Well, let me tell you, you’re looking at two VERY different evenings here.
In preparation for this article, I turned last week into Eye-Contact-Week. I went out and either made as much eye contact as possible or, alternatively, reduced my eye contact so it was just enough to not bump into people. The results I got ranged from “You’re such a great listener!” to “Watch where you’re going, idiot!”
Humans are unique when it comes to eye contact
With many species on the planet, eye contact leads to an aversive reaction. Either it signifies the detection of a threat, dominance behavior, or both.
Not so for our species. Eye contact has become such a powerful tool that it even shaped the development of our brains and looks.
Making eye contact activates a network of structures in our brain that scientist named ‘the social brain.’ This network is responsible for processing social information such as decoding facial expressions, reading emotions, intentions, desires, and attitudes of other individuals.
Some scientists claim that during our evolution as a species, eye-contact has become so crucial for our survival (and let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen, procreation) that the area of our eyes surrounding the iris has lost its pigmentation. That is why the outer part of our eyes is now completely white. This fancy feature makes it easy for us to detect even small eye movements from a distance. An ability that significantly improved non-verbal communication.
Using and becoming aware of eye contact starts extremely early. Newborn babies typically start to react to it somewhere between the 25th and 28th day! That means they’ve learned about this before they managed to go through their first family sized pack of diapers!
Think about it: At that age, you can basically a) sleep, b) eat and c) poop. And one of the first skills that your brain adds to that very fundamental list is reacting to eye contact!
Ok, so that was a lot of scientific stuff. Let’s take a look at how eye contact works before we’ll dive into ways to use it as a tool.
Eye contact serves a couple of functions
1. Eye Contact lets us receive feedback
When we are interacting with someone, it’s great to know how we’re doing. We could base our evaluation purely on what the other person is saying while we awkwardly stare at our feet – but it does seem like we could do better. That’s why we look up and make eye contact.
2. Eye Contact shows the other person that we’re listening
Have you ever talked with someone at a party who kept looking over your shoulder to see who else was there? And did that feel like you had a connection with that person?
Making eye contact shows that we’re invested, that all our systems are set to receive. It says: “I’m here, you have my attention!”. Our brain even helps us by withholding information: we become much slower to detect other items of interests in the background when we’re directly looking at someone.
The two forces determining eye contact
On one side, eye contact is awesome.
It gives us feedback on how the other person is doing, how we’re doing, and it creates this feeling of cooperation, bonding, and unbroken attention.
But on the other side, eye contact can also be difficult.
There is the fear that we’re revealing too much of what’s going on inside of us.
There’s the fear of seeing the other person reject what we’re saying, our opinion, or even us!
So there you have it. The light side and the dark side of eye contact. And our brain does what any self-respecting Jedi who is torn between the light and the dark side of the force would do. It picks something in the middle – something it’s comfortable and familar with.
But, and this is the important part: your brain picks something it’s comfortable with not in terms of eye contact, but in terms of intimacy.
Let’s talk about intimacy
Every interaction with someone else has a certain level of intimacy (no, we’re not talking varying levels of hanky-panky):
- How well we know the other person.
- How physically close we are to the other person.
- How superficial or personal the conversation is.
- How much smiling is going on?
And so on. You get the picture.
The amount of eye contact is just one of the factors your brain can and will control in order to stay in that comfortable range of intimacy.
Have you wondered about that evening when it was easy for you to hold eye contact while you were standing a few feet apart making small talk, but then you struggled to keep it as the evening progressed? Well, maybe that was because you moved closer, and you two are now talking about more meaningful topics where rejection would hurt so much more?
See, your brain tries to keep that balance. You change one factor, and it’s going to compensate with another. Maybe that’s eye contact, maybe that’s leaning back, maybe that’s changing the topic!
In an experiment, scientists found that people standing close to someone who had their eyes closed tended to lean back when the other person kept constant eye contact.
“Michael!”, I hear you saying. “That’s a lot of theory! My brain is about to explode!”
Ok ok, I hear you. Mine exploded a few paragraphs before, and you didn’t even notice.
So now that you know more about eye contact than most people, here are a few techniques you can use in a conversation:
5 Tips on Making Better Eye-Contact
1. Put in as much eye contact as you can!
Remember all the good stuff that eye contact leads to? You want to bring as much of it as you can into the conversation.
And you now know that what’s going to slow you down on the eye contact highway: the fear of giving away too much of what’s going on inside of you, and the fear of seeing how you get rejected.
If you are willing to lean into these fears by giving the other person that extra helping of eye contact, you are also diminishing these fears! At The Art of Charm, we like to say “It’s easier to act your way into thinking than to think your way into acting.” This applies here as well.
It’s a fantastic two-for-one deal. By holding more eye contact, you forge a stronger bond AND you chip away at your fears.
2. Don’t worry about making the other person uncomfortable.
This is a clever excuse that seems to make a lot of sense. But in reality, this is just rationalizing your action in hindsight.
The other person is more than capable of maintain his or her own comfort level. If you keep a bit too much eye contact, that other person is just going to look up a little less.
But this doesn’t work the other way around. If you think that by not making that much eye contact, the other person will make more of it and move closer, you’re wrong. If this approach worked, you would have never bothered to read this article, right?
3. It’s not necessarily a bad sign if the other person reduces eye contact.
Remember, this is not the metric we’re ultimately using to gauge interest. We need to look at intimacy.
Maybe that other person has just opened up about something, moved closer, started smiling – and to compensate for that, broke their gaze.
And if all you notice is that loss of eye contact, you’re looking at the wrong marker!
4. There is no “too much eye contact!”
In all my years of doing this, I have never come across anyone who had such strong eye contact that it was disruptive. Yes, I came across people who had an uncanny ability to establish and hold eye contact. And you know what? If anything, it was mesmerizing to be around them.
I know it’s tempting to say “If I do this too much it’s creepy.”I get it.
But you won’t keep it up 100% of the time anyway. Your brain will get distracted. Or overstimulated. Or you will give in to the discomfort at one point without even noticing it.
5. If you have to break eye contact, do it while listening
Remember how it’s easier to hold eye contact while listening, and harder when you are talking?
That’s why you’re not losing much ground when you look away while you listen. You’ve just demonstrated that your brain is able to pull off the hard work: to form coherent sentences, open up and keep eye contact – all at the same time. That means that when you are listening, you have nothing more to prove.
So this can be an excellent opportunity to give the other person some breathing room, especially when they are struggling with what they have to say.
Are you up for a little exercise?
Holding strong eye contact is not a “trick”. It is a skill that needs to be practiced.
So the next time you are having a conversation, turn up that eye contact. And every time you break it, make a mental note of why that happened. Then go back to holding that eye contact again.
And note how the other person reacts to that added, undistracted attention!
You will be surprised!