A number of years ago, I was trying hard to get support for an undertaking at work. When I finally got a meeting with a key stakeholder, I was determined to make the best of it.
I arrived at the senior vice president’s office prepared to capture and hold her attention. We sat at a coffee table in the corridor of the busy office, and I thought at first this was a good thing. She would probably be more relaxed here, I reasoned.
I didn’t realize she would be distracted by the many suppliers, clients, and executives walking past. It was like a having a meeting at a circus.
Five minutes into our meeting, I noticed the VP’s gaze shift from my eyes to somewhere over my shoulder. Without thinking, I turned around to see what caught her eye. It was her boss. I thought nothing of it, but when I turned back to the VP, she looked a little embarrassed for the disruption. Despite her best efforts, it happened again. That time, I tried something different: I redoubled my efforts to make eye contact, leaning slightly forward. A surprising thing happened: The VP shifted in her seat, adjusted her glasses, and fixed her eye contact on me. It was like she was saying, “Sorry, I have been rude. It will not happen again.”
While an entire book could be written on the subject of eye contact, today’s article is limited to how we can use eye contact to get and keep someone’s attention.
The Power of Eye Contact
We can feel it when people are looking at us, even from across the room. If someone raises their eyebrows in surprise (or delight) as they look at us, we subconsciously take it as a cue that they want to engage. When we want to go unnoticed, we’ll only glance at someone, usually sidelong. A longer stare is generally a strong indicator that we want to register our presence with the person we are gazing at.
The placement of your gaze on someone can say a lot about your intentions:
- When you’re all business, your gaze will tend to form a triangle from the eyes to the forehead.
- Turning the triangle down from the eyes to the mouth signals friendship.
- Extending the triangle from the eyes down to the chest will indicate romantic intentions – or creepy ones, depending on the context.
You can certainly get someone’s attention by glaring at them, or staring at them when they look away, or staring at them when their eyes meet yours – but all that staring gets off-putting fast. So, just how much eye contact is recommended?
Generally, I say that 70 percent is the sweet spot – that is, maintaining eye contact for 7 seconds out of every 10. While you’re listening, you can increase that to 90 percent. While you’re talking, 50 percent should be plenty. It is very natural to look away while formulating your thoughts and then make eye contact to confirm you are being heard and understood.
As in all aspects of communication, variation keeps it interesting. Occasionally breaking eye contact is one way to bring some variation, but there is more you can do as well. For example, expressions like narrowing your eyes in concentration and widening them in surprise can change things up a bit.
Our expressions are usually congruent with the idea we’re discussing, and they generally occur naturally. However, in a recent workshop, a client told me they didn’t have expression in their eyes when they spoke. This is not unusual. Some people are just not that expressive. I advised this client to practice eye gestures that were congruent with what they were saying – e.g., if recalling information, shift your gaze upward; if formulating a thought, look down. This type of “avoidance” actually makes eye contact more interesting, which helps to keep the conversation engaging.
Anthony Awerbuch is a certified body language trainer and an expert in facial expression identification. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.