Making eye contact can be pretty hard. Whether trying to look at colleagues when talking. Or establishing a connection with a cute girl before walking up. When your gazes connects, it can send a shiver through your spine. In an instant reflex your eyes dart away. You look down,... and try again without looking.
The struggle is real. Especially if you're socially anxious. It is nerve breaking to look into someone’s eyes. Having no visual confrontation is easier. Eyes to the floor or to infinity works, for now.
But hey, of course I’m here to tell you, that shit doesn’t fly if you want to make a connection. But also, that you can learn this!
So why is making eye contact hard?
Well it is also used for establishing an informal status structure. Low status people look away from the gaze of higher status people. Very primal. Rationally it is not applicable anymore in our complex societies. But instinctively the mechanism is still there.
If you see yourself as low status, of course you look away. Don’t upset the higher-ups in the tribe. But there isn’t a tribe anymore, is there? (unless you are in high school.) And our society is so complex, that the disdain of one person doesn’t mean you can’t function in the rest of the world.
Despite it not being rational, you keep looking away. How you look at people defines your relationship. Unfortunately also, how you look away.
You reinforce your low ‘worth’ to yourself by doing that. And you keep putting people on pedestals by regarding them higher status. (I'd rather have you embrace yourself as more worthy!)
Next to that - it is proven to be pretty hard, if unpracticed to make eye contact and keep a conversation going. Especially when socially unpracticed. Processing all information that is conveyed through the eyes AND talking is too much then. So you either stop in an awkward silence or look away. But this lack of practice can be mitigated of course, with practice!
Why is making eye contact important
Because making eye contact is a big part of a conversation. It doesn’t have to be a status game, most of the time it is a way of communication. But you unconsciously only react to the first status mechanism. Causing you to miss out on a big part of the conversation.
A big part of feeling anxious in conversation is ambiguity. Not knowing what the other is feeling, communicating. But looking in someone’s eyes can take that away. A practiced social creature you can read entire stories in someone’s eyes.
Looking at someone’s eyes and face is a way to gauge their emotions. It takes away most of the uncertainty and ambiguity about what the other is thinking and feeling.
But you might say: “But I just don’t get people.”
Yes you do get people.
We are preprogrammed to read expressions. You get emoticons too right? Those are the simplest schematic translations of eye and facial expressions. You get what 5 lines of eyebrows, eyes and a mouth can convey. I mean you know what emotions are expressed here right: 🤣 😏 😌 😉 😊?
A higher level of emotional and social nuance can be read on someone’s face. Maybe you need some practice again. But the translation of those squiggly facial lines are already hardwired in your head!
Besides, if you make eye contact, you look up, stand straighter and display and feel more confidence. You are a more equal partner in the conversation.
Good eye contact - what does it look like
If you want to make good eye contact think about these guidelines.
Have balanced contact. Look at people for <10 seconds - and then look away a bit. Don’t make the death stare, or flit your gaze on and off every few seconds. A calm look in the face. Then back at the environment a bit.
During a conversation a rule of thumb is the 50-70% balance. 50% of the time making eye contact when talking and 70% of the time when listening.
Try to have relaxed eyes, no tensed up squinting. Narrowing of your eyes and frowning of the eyebrows is a very focused alert stance. A fight or flighty way to look at people. Which comes across angry, intimidating or sullen. As where open relaxed eyes are for connecting - for people getting to know one another.
When a natural silence drops - give others the chance to reflect and react. So break eye contact a bit. If you keep looking you force an answer. Making it awkward in the process.
When you do look away for a bit. Do it slowly not flitting or darting your eyes away. Easily avert your gaze. Look at another facial feature or a bit to the side. Don’t look down (submissive). Take your time glancing away.
If you make any gestures, like nodding or shaking your head, you can of course close your eyes or break eye contact.
Important during conversation is to stay in the moment. Be present. Making eye contact actually helps a lot with that - a double focus on face and word. Having less concentration to let your thoughts take you away on a journey. While listening you can be expressive with your own eyes as well.
During an introduction, always make eye contact. This is important! Here you get to feel each other out. Take your time, smile(!) and nod to finish the introductions. You can take more than 10 seconds to make the contact.
This sounds like a lot of “rules”. But it is actually pretty easy once you start. You're instinct will take over. So how to start practicing this?
Getting better at making eye contact
1. Street Practice - practicing establishing connection
From now on if you walk down the street, try to focus on these pointers to get better and more comfortable making eye contact.
Make sure you walk/stand straight and look up most of the time. Eyes on horizon level, and a gaze around you. Already look up.
When you approach someone, make eye contact. First you might be comfortable with just a second. After 50 times with about three seconds.
When you do - have that few seconds of contact. After that you (or they) can acknowledge the other. By a nod, smile or a simple wave and ‘hi’.
Never stop doing this anymore ;). Get comfortable with this, you smiling first can be the best moment of someone’s day.
Once comfortable with this - use this to establish connection at other places as well. To approach people and connect at a bar, club, school work.
2. Triangle technique - practicing keeping eye contact
This is a simple way to keep your anxious mind busy while making contact. Look at eye one, then eye two, and then at the mouth. Make this circuit a few times. Look away, and do it again. This way you make eye contact using a practice system to get used to it.
3. Exposure therapy - practicing it during conversation.
Time to make eye contact in the wild. Either use the triangle technique or just look. Use the description of good eye contact to see if you are doing it well. Reflect! And practice again.
Start with people you are comfortable with and practice good eye contact. Like family and friends. Practice you are doing it well and feel comfortable.
Once you get a hang of that, try doing it with colleagues or classmates. People you kinda know but not intimately. Again practice until at ease.
Then people you poorly feel connected with. Like the local bookstore owner, or the receptionist you see every day - but whose name you keep forgetting.
Finally, try to have conversation with total strangers. Or people that intimidate you, bosses for example. Practice until this is no problem anymore!
If you are looking more on the attraction side of eye contact. Check out this article by Mark Manson about checking eachother out. It defines levels of eye contact when there is or isn't attraction.
Alright - I’m signing of, going to give my eyes some rest from staring at a screen half the day!
Catch you later my friend!