A Russian poet who was visiting a wealthy American in his home noticed a huge, magnificent moose head mounted on the wall. He asked his host how he could shoot such an impressive animal.
“It was easy,” said the American. “He didn’t look me in the eye. If he had looked me in the eye, I couldn’t have shot him.”
My good friend Nido Qubein, president of High Point University, told me this story to illustrate the power of establishing eye contact.
“When you look people in the eye, they become more than passing acquaintances,” Nido said. “They become people with whom you interact, if only briefly.”
He added: “When speaking to anyone, whether it’s your mother or an audience of thousands, try to establish eye contact. If you don’t, your listeners may tune you out.”
Numerous studies conducted over the years have confirmed that eye contact plays an important role in both verbal and non-verbal communication. A person can communicate with their eyes and never say a word.
Susan Young, in her book “The Art of Body Language: 8 Ways to Optimize Non-Verbal Communication for Positive Impact,” writes: “One simple glance can convey to your recipient that you are . . . present, interested, paying attention, being respectful, listening, confident, engaged, caring, dedicated, appreciative, emphatic, focused, supportive, trustworthy, acknowledging, excited. This list barely scratches the surface; however, it opens the conversation about how vital your eye contact is for making positive first impressions.”
Unfortunately, eye contact has become somewhat of a lost skill. Many people seem to be constantly looking down at their smart phone, even though individuals are right in front of them. You might need to disconnect to connect with people.
Making eye contact is a skill that can be learned. It might take a little practice but can have a significant impact on your work and personal life.
The first step is to just relax and smile. A smile generally puts others at ease. Everything seems much easier with a smile.
Next, practice eye contact with people you trust, such as family and friends, even pets. You want to practice with people you can form a connection. Use a mirror or record yourself on your smart phone. Practicing will help you overcome nervousness and gain confidence.
No one said this is easy, so practice regularly to increase your comfort level. Over time eye contact should become automatic, but you must challenge yourself to improve and push the boundaries to continue to grow.
Studies show that you should maintain eye contact twice as much when listening than when you are talking to show you are paying attention. People expect you to look them in the eyes, because if you don’t, they think you are rude. Also, lean in and show that you are interested.
Caution: Don’t overdo it! You don’t want to stare, so look away every once in a while, to the side, not up or down. Pick a focal point near the eyes. Some suggestions are to look at only one eye, as I have done for years, or eyebrows, forehead, mouth or one ear. The important point is to shift your gaze. Be careful not to be robotic.
Remember that the other person may be feeling just as awkward. There is nothing wrong with putting a little space between you and the other person.
Observe the masters or role models like news anchors. When you are watching and listening to a speaker, observe their eye contact and make note of what works best. Study people who have strong social skills like eye contact.
In this era of video calls, eye contact is still important. I can’t tell you how many people look up or down during Zoom meetings. Put your laptop on a pile of books so the camera is directly across from your eyes. And one of my biggest complaints on Zoom calls is individuals who are always looking at their other devices. Fine if you want to check occasionally but be attentive to the people who are virtually in front of you.
Looking someone in the eye is hardly a new concept. According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, good eye contact shows the intangible characteristic of integrity. In other words, when you’re telling the truth, good eye contact translates to another person that you are credible.
Mackay’s Moral: Looking into someone’s eyes changes the entire conversation.