Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Eye contact

Tip

When presenting, most people believe they look at the audience far more than they do, so test yourself and then make a conscious effort to look at your audience.

It’s vital to make good eye contact whenever possible if you want to connect with people. In the Western world, good eye contact usually means meeting someone’s eyes for a period of a few seconds at a time, and breaking eye contact only for a second or two before looking back.

This does not mean you should lock eyes with the other person. When we are listening attentively to someone, we are usually looking at their face and our eyes are moving around the central part of the other person’s face – generally their eyes and mouth – so ‘good eye contact’ does not really mean only ‘eye to eye’ contact.

Bad habits

Various bad eye contacts habits are discussed below. Unfortunately, we are often blissfully unaware of our own bad habits, so it’s often a good idea to run through a checklist of potential bad habits with a friend or colleague.

  • Do you hold eye contact for too long?
  • Do you avoid contact?
  • Do you turn away when you are thinking?
  • Do you close your eyes when thinking?
  • Do you hide behind papers, especially in meetings?
Note

As with other nonverbal signals, eye contact must be considered in relation to cultural norms. The definition of ‘good eye contact’ (and other nonverbal behaviour) in China, Japan, South America and so on differs in many ways from that in Western culture. If you are dealing with foreign nationals, ensure you understand their cultural norms and act appropriately.

Don’t stare!

Extended eye contact – in other words, without the normal breaks – can make people feel threatened (except in intimate relationships, where the context will dictate), so be aware that going into a stare or refusing to break eye contact can be counter-productive unless your intent is to dominate. Conversely, avoiding eye contact is often interpreted by others as having negative connotations.

Time for thought

Some people break eye contact dramatically when they are thinking – looking and often turning their head away from the other person, for seconds at a time. Sometimes they will continue to speak as they do this. Although this pattern of behaviour may be unintentional, looking away like this can often make someone appear to lack self-confidence while causing the other person to feel cut off.

Is this something you tend to do? If so, it could be hindering your ability to gain and keep rapport with people, and their ability to engage and connect with you. It would be better to look slightly away briefly while you gather your thoughts (not turning your face away), before looking back at the other party to deliver them.

Tip

As suggested above, ask yourself – or someone else who knows you well – if you tend to close your eyes when speaking. If you are a highly technical or analytical person, you may find the answer is yes.

Some people have an equally unhelpful habit of closing their eyes for a few moments when they are thinking or speaking. This lasts much longer than a normal blink and literally blocks the other person from sight! Often, it appears to the other party as if the person feels a certain superiority – and it does nothing to build rapport or open communication.

Eye contact in meetings

In meetings, especially those where there is a convenient bit of paper to look at, it’s easy to forget how important eye contact and facial expression/engagement with others really are.

Test yourself – do you tend to hide behind the documents? Improve your communication and positive impact in meetings by ensuring you build a habit of looking up, sitting up and speaking up in a positive way – both when you have a contribution to make and when you are listening to someone else!

Don’t forget, even when you are not speaking, to remain ‘in the room’ by continuing to acknowledge and engage with others with brief and frequent eye contact during discussions.