Eye contact: the key to better communication and connection

A woman makes sustained eye contact by looking directly into the camera.
Eye contact is a key component in establishing and maintaining relationships of trust – trouble is, it doesn’t come easy to many of us.

How long can you look at the image above before you feel unsettled, uncomfortable or unnerved?

Eye contact can be daunting for many of us. There are, of course, many factors: your gender, age, emotional state and who youare speaking to all affect your inclination to make and sustain eye contact. However these varying scenarios impact our ability to lock eyes with another person, there is one, unchanging truth: eye contact is essential in building, strengthening and maintaining meaningful connection.

I’ve wondered if first dates and job interviews are two of the most intimidating social experiences of our lives because both involve sitting opposite someone and making sustained eye contact. Couple this with the fact that face-to-face conversations are happening more infrequently due to the pandemic, the ease of communicating via technology and the fact that sofas, cars and meeting desks often have us sitting side by side, and it’s easy to see that eye contact is becoming a dying art. I expect this is a skill we will have to relearn when our social and professional interactions become more frequent.

Levels of engagement, trust and emotional connection are all affected by the amount of eye contact we make when communicating with other people.

In a 2006 joint venture between Wolverhampton and Stirling Universities, a lecturer delivered two versions of a presentation: in one, they did not gaze at the camera and in the other, they gazed into the camera 30% of the time, giving the impression they were making eye contact. In the presentation where eye contact was prevalent, retention of the information presented increased considerably. This confirms the idea that eye contact is critical to people’s ability to retain the information you deliver. If you are someone who presents information or is keen for people to remember what you say, the importance of meaningful eye contact in that process cannot be overstated.

It goes further – while the average eye contact in a meaningful communication resides between 30% and 60% research from Texas-based analytics company Quantified Communications suggests that to build emotional connection, the conversation needs eye contact to be sustained 60-70% of the time. This builds upon my previous thought: perhaps first dates and job interviews are nerve-wracking because they require a more dedicated investment of emotional energy and eye contact. There are subtleties, though: apparently, we like gazes of around three seconds and certainly don’t appreciate anything longer than nine or ten seconds.

Even the cereal you choose is determined by making eye contact with the ‘spokescharacters’ on the box. Studies in the US have revealed that characters on adult cereal make eye contact with adults from their position on the shelf, and children’s characters’ eyes are positioned so they ‘look down’ from the shelf at children. Even when a study changed the position of the character’s gaze on a box of adult cereal, the adults in the study overwhelmingly concluded they were more trusting of, and connected to, the cereal that looked at them.

When you speak in public, present or need to build a connection of trust with your audience, how can you develop your eye contact? Let me present three strategies I have employed that have helped me improve on something I used to find incredibly difficult and awkward (and sometimes still struggle with):

  1. Imagine the number ‘5’ on a dice. Choose five people in your audience, one in each of the four corners and one in the middle. Perhaps they are wearing bright colours, have amazing hair, smile at you or are otherwise particularly noticeable. As you move your eye contact between these five people, the rest of the room will be implicitly included. Evetually, you will become confident enough to bring in more than just five people, but this is a great place to start if you simply want to start shifting your gaze around the room.

2. The more you read, the better you speak. I was watching a great speaker who suggested that when you reach a piece of punctuation, shift your eye contact to another person in the room. This ensures you don’t look at any one person for too long, but also allows you to sustain eye contact for long enough so as not to appear shifty or unprepared. Familiarity with how a speech is punctated allows the speaker to breathe, move and shift eye contact more effectively, thereby increasing the overall control and impact of the presentation.

3. As awkward as this might be at first, practice delivering your presentations or having a conversation with yourself in the mirror. If you can hold your own gaze, knowing everything about yourself, you can make eye contact with anyone! I’m not ashames I’ve delivered a couple of presentations to the mirror, and it really does help!

If you are someone who doesn’t find it easy to maintain eye contact, don’t worry – you are certainly not alone! However, there is a good reason why we have more of the whites of our eyes visible than any other species of primate – we were meant to use them to look at other people! Whether it’s into an audience, another person’s eyes or a camera lens, a more concerted effort to make eye contact is the key to more meaningful communication and connection. Let’s get practicing!

A single eye looks directly into the camera.
However awkward or difficult it may feel at first, the key to more meaningful communication and connection is to develop your ability to maintain sustained eye contact.

References and additional reading:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16081035/

https://www.quantifiedcommunications.com/blog/eye-contact-a-declining-communications-tool/

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324809804578511290822228174

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190108-why-meeting-anothers-gaze-is-so-powerful

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2014/08/21/facinating-facts-about-eye-contact/#5fb89f991e26

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p020gkp8

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