Over the last year I have made a conscious commitment to making more eye contact. I went from avoiding eye contact to actively pursuing it. I paid very little attention to eye contact just a year ago, and because I didn’t attend to it, I learned little about it and thus created few automatic heuristics for dealing with it. I had some implicit rules about when to look up, and when to look away, but because I was not paying attention to it consciously the job was mostly mediated by reflexes. I let my body’s natural inclinations, about when to engage and when to look away, guide my protocol for eye contact. Now that I have become conscious of it during conversations I feel I have been learning a great deal about it. Curiosity has led me to the question: “what are the cultural norms for eye contact?” It seems to me that the existing norms, like research on the topic, are incomplete, leading us to the question: “what should the norms for eye contact be?”Making more frequent eye contact has proven to be both good and bad. It has opened doors for me into meeting new people, prolonging conversations, building rapport and leading others to believe that I am not a pushover. On the downside, I am usually aware that the person I am talking to has a tendency to feel uncomfortable and seems to have an lurking suspicion that my eye contact is a way to assert myself. This seems to be a fundamental tradeoff with eye contact and I have been trying to figure out how to make eye contact in a way that is friendly and not domineering. It seems that the best eye contact is natural eye contact – the kind that you don’t have to think about. The problem for most of us though, is that it takes time and practice for eye contact to become natural.
The first strategy that I tried out was to make exactly as much eye contact with the other person as they made with me. I figured that the best way to do this was to look away half of the time. To do this I would wait for a meeting of the eyes, hold for a few seconds and then intentionally look away before the other person did. The next time our eyes met I would maintain the gaze until they looked away. Next, I would look away first and so on. I devised this plan thinking that this was the most comfortable and fair way to make eye contact. I didn’t want to come across as intimidating, but I also didn’t want the other person to think that I was cowering or unable to sustain contact. The plan seemed fair and equitable, so I gave it a shot for a couple of months.It worked, but not very well. Many people expressed through their expressions, body language and nonverbal emotions that they found this upsetting. It may have seemed unnatural to them. I think that people could tell that I was trying to “beat” them half of the time, and then didn’t really know what to make of the times that I looked away first. Also, in order to make this work while being sensitive to their feelings you have to look away quickly when it is your turn to look away. This inevitably leads to alternations between you looking away quickly and uncomfortable staredowns. I realized that if I was going to continue making eye contact I would have to think up another solution. Could it be best to try some other rigid pattern of turn taking?
I finally came to the conclusion that you cannot mentally keep track of how many times each person looks away because the act takes away from the flow of natural eye contact. The problem was that I didn’t have the unconscious skills to make natural-seeming eye contact because I simply didn’t have the experience. I learned some simple tricks though, and I intend to share them here.
1) The more expressive you are the longer you can maintain your gaze without upsetting the other person. On the other hand, if you are not using your facial muscles and hands during eye contact, you look like you are staring blankly and if you don’t look away the other person may sense that you have a negative intention.2) If you use a gesticulation, raise your eyebrow, build a slow-growing smile or if you use your hands you can maintain your gaze without looking overbearing or intense.
3) Do not always look down when you look away from the other person’s eyes. When you look at the floor following eye contact this is a signal of subordination or defeat. Also look up during conversation, at or above eye level even when you are not looking straight at the person. When you are looking out at the environment during a conversation you might have a tendency to look straight down after the person’s sentence ends. This is highly self-subordinating. It is ok to look down after breaking eye contact, but if you are looking at the wall, never feel like you have to look down to the floor in order to appease them.4) Try to look above them or just to the side of their head, this will make them feel that you are listening, have remained engaged and are ready to reinstate eye contact.
5) Make sure that you make eye contact both while they are speaking and while you are speaking. It is often difficult to maintain eye contact as you are speaking because this involves doing two things at once. Remember that this is true for the other person as well.
6) I find that the most comfortable thing that I can do is to make brief contact several times while speaking myself, then when I am nearing the end of my point I hold contact. This gives the other person a moment to look away, regain their composure and think of what to say next.7) Feel safe in maintaining eye contact for extended durations when the conversation reaches a topic that you feel strongly about. Other people see this as natural. Try to avoid sustained eye contact when you reach a topic that may be unnecessarily controversial. You don’t want them to think that you have negative motives that you actually don’t have.
8) Be sensitive to how the other person is responding to your extended eye contact. They may feed off of it or they may actively avoid it.
9) Many people are only peripherally aware of the amount and quality of eye contact that they make. It is interesting to notice the extent to which most people are completely unconscious of it. They will, however, become conscious of your eye contact if it is unnatural and if they can tell that you are thinking about it.
10) Having wide open eyes that are not glaring or wincing helps the quality of your eye contact tremendously. When you make eye contact try not to flex your lower eyelid as this is a defensive eye posture.11) I think that it is a positive and natural thing to ask your friends and acquaintances about how they use eye contact. I have told several friends: “Hey, I have been trying to make more eye contact recently. I want you to be comfortable with this. How do you feel about the dynamics of how we have been making eye contact recently?”