Eye contact: is it good or bad when you’re communicating? New research suggests that forcing eye contact could have a negative effect, but in the right manner eye contact can be very powerful.
By Ariadne Laurenns, ConfidentSpeak
We have all said it—especially if like me, you’re a parent.
Look at me while I am speaking to you.
Contrary to popular belief, though, uttering those words may result in far from the desired outcome.
New research has found convincing evidence that attempting to force eye contact when trying to change someone’s mind or persuade them of something may actually cause the listener to become less receptive.
During this research, subjects who were asked to hold eye contact with a speaker were less open-minded and more likely to hold on to their original opinion than those who were allowed to look elsewhere.
According to one of the study’s authors, social psychologist Julia A. Minson:
Eye contact is a very intimate thing, so when you’re in a situation that feels confrontational, I think it’s more likely to put people off … Dogs aren’t going to look each other in the eye unless they’re about to fight.
Frances S. Chen, the other study author and a social psychologist, added:
It’s already a tense situation. That’s a very primal way that eye contact is used.
Prior to taking part in the experiment the subjects were asked for their opinions on various topics.
The researchers, using eye-tracking technology, then asked them to watch recorded speeches which supported the opposing viewpoint. The subjects were then asked whether their attitude had changed. Those who focused on the speakers’ gaze were less likely to have changed their opinion than those who looked at other parts of the speaker’s face.
Ms Chen said:
People were less open-minded and receptive the more they look at the eyes.
Throughout this research both spontaneous and forced eye contact were tested. In the first experiment an area of gaze focus was not specified whereas in the second, experiment, Subjects were told to stare at either the speaker’s eyes or mouth.
Maintained eye contact was less likely to lead to opinion change.
Eye contact is still an important and powerful social skill
We must not forget, however, just how powerful eye contact can be.
Here are some tips to help you use it effectively in both one to one situations and more formally in a speech or presentation.
How Eye Contact can be Powerful in Face-to-Face Communications
Eye contact helps to create moments where you are able to tangibly feel what someone else is feeling. It creates empathy and an intimate bond…
- Lean back as you increase the amount of eye contact – This will make the receiver more comfortable and avoid crowding them
- Focus on one eye at a time and switch slowly and smoothly between them – This avoids a laser-like gaze with can be off putting
- Try the ‘Triangle Method” (this really works!) – Focus on one of the persons eyes for a second, then move your gaze to the other, then to their mouth and back to the first eye using a natural flow.
How Eye Contact can be Powerful in a Speech or Presentation
This is made much easier and used to more effect the more you have rehearsed your talk and the less you have to refer to your notes.
- Open your talk with eye contact – take a few moments to look around, smile and name eye contact with your audience before you start
- Through out your speech make eye contact with individuals in your audience – this will help to create a sense of intimacy.
- Make a particular effort to make eye contact at the end of your speech – This is when you will leave a lasting impression and drive home your message
- Try meeting the eyes of a stranger on the street – (although this should be used with caution for obvious reasons) It’s a great way to build eye-contact-confidence – just keep your expression neutral and your gaze soft and brief.
You can read more on the research by Minson, Chen and their research teams at the Psychological Science Journal website.
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ConfidentSpeak is a specialist S.T.E.M Communications & Coaching Consultancy based in Dublin, Ireland. We work with leading Irish and international companies and executives at home and abroad. Contact us for details on our range of corporate/private programmes for executives, sales teams and technical professionals.