How Eye Contact Instills Compassion

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Eye contact is key in communication. Many memorable scenes culminate when two people stare into each other’s eyes. Soft music plays in the background, the star-crossed lovers inch ever closer for that first kiss, never taking their eyes off each other. The world around them disappears until there is only the two of them as they lean in until lips touch lips. Both characters in that scene had to convey the same message for that moment to ultimately end in a kiss. Eye contact can also send a completely different message and quite the opposite of the one the lovers above shared.

Take two people in the midst of a heated argument for instance. They have eyes only for each other and their surroundings also seem to disappear as they face off. However, in this instance their eye contact is both angry and defensive. Much like the romantic couple, they may not take their eyes off each other as they move in closer but their message is definitely not one of love.

In our world of cellphones, tablets, video games, and every other device that demands not only our attention but also face to face interaction, it is increasingly more difficult to hold a conversation where both parties maintain eye contact rather than the occasional glance in the other’s direction. I am often telling my kids to look at me when I speak to them. It’s not necessarily because I feel they aren’t listening, though I have tested the theory and they do in fact “forget” what I asked them to do when they  don’t make eye contact. In my opinion, nine out of ten times that means they never actually heard me. The importance of eye contact carries over into every aspect of our lives.

The kids aren’t the only ones guilty of this lack of eye contact. It works both ways. I confess to being lost in my writing, eyes on the screen as my fingers fly over the keyboard when I hear, “Mom, are you listening? You’re not even looking at me.” Don’t you love it when your kids use your own words against you? Even better, in a flustered moment I recently responded with, “I listen with my ears” which undoubtedly sent them quite the mixed message.

A 2014 Forbes article, Fascinating Facts About Eye Contact, states that not enough eye contact can make you appear uneasy, or insincere. On the flip side, too much eye contact is instinctively felt to be rude, hostile and condescending; and in a business context, it may also be perceived as a deliberate intent to dominate, intimidate, belittle, or make “the other” feel at a disadvantage.

I’m not sure there is a magic amount of eye contact that makes both parties feel comfortable. There should be a balance as both parties take turns listening and responding. People are more drawn to someone who looks them in the eye when they speak, who looks them in the eye when they listen, and makes them feel important by remaining engaged.

The same article references a study by Cornell University in which researchers manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on several Trix cereal boxes, asked a panel of adults to choose one, and discovered, as they expected, that the box most frequently chosen was the one on which the rabbit was looking directly at them, rather than away.

Trix are for kids right? Well, so is instilling in them the ability to truly connect with others on a personal level. I believe that is where compassion is taught. When we teach our children to look someone in the eyes when they speak, we are teaching them to truly see the person before them. In so doing they learn to connect with others on a deeper level and aren’t quick to dismiss them. Think about the homeless person you walk past every day and can’t bring yourself to make eye contact whether because their circumstances make you feel uncomfortable or simply because they have become a fixture on your way to work. Think about your kids and how often you trivialize what they are trying to share with you because you are too busy to make eye contact with them in that moment when they are excited to tell you about their day or their friends or their game, etc. Think about the co-worker whom you often respond to without looking up from your desk.

We all want to feel seen and heard. We all want to feel connected to those we interact with and while there are days we would rather just blend into the woodwork, inevitably the day arrives when we crave that human connection once more.

This post was written as part of 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion. Read more posts or share your own by following the link below.

23 thoughts on “How Eye Contact Instills Compassion

  1. This was a very good take on this month’s topic. i have a few friends with kids living with Autism and teaching their kids to look people in the eye has been very important. My daughter is quite shy and can struggle with people she doesn’t know and avoid eye contact. When she was younger, she used to hide behind me and as I’m tall and an extrovert, I was a great shield.
    My son is notorious for staring at a screen be it TV or computer and not hearing a word. He’s in a trance. Have to touch him and “eyes to me” at these times.
    Thanks very much for your stimulating post.
    xx Rowena

    • Thank you Rowena. My daughter used to hide behind me all the time when she was a little girl. Truth is, she’s a shy teenager now too. It takes her a little time to warm up to people. I get that not everyone is comfortable making eye contact, but getting lost on the screen rather than looking at the person speaking is disrespectful. I’m working on my kids all the time and myself too for that matter! ha!

  2. This is fascinating for sure and YES I hate when my kid uses my own words. But I’ve found that when that happens, I totally deserve to be called out. Just wrote about that and gah, what a crusher it was. Eye contact is such a big thing and can go a long way toward making someone feel valued and important. Love your topic.

  3. This is beautiful in its simplicity. It just is something we dont do anymore… eye contact. It should not be this hard to encourage people to maintain eye contact for a prolonged time.

  4. I think eye contact is a very strong social cue, but (as Kerry highlights) not always necessary. I think we get lazy because we can see, and choosing NOT to make eye contact can send as strong of a message as making it.

    I do think, though, that our earliest senses are the ones we feel most purely, and I suspect that for many of us, gazing into people’s interested faces as they watch us when we’re tiny, is a powerful thing, and recalling their interest and transferring it to others, is meaningful.

    • I totally agree that choosing to not make eye contact can send as strong of a message as making it. I think the one that bugs me most is the “I’m only half listening to you as I scan the room waiting for someone more interesting to come along.” LOL

      The baby image is such a sweet reminder that we start our lives seeking that eye contact. I recall my toddlers grabbing my face with their pudgy little hands to force me to look at them when they spoke to me.

  5. Sad but true….I had a lazy eye up until the age of 16 when I had corrective surgery. Up to that point people would often say “Are you looking at me?”. After a few thousand times I cast my eyes down to avoid the embarrassing question. So I’m sure people thought I was shady or weak but I was just so damn tired of that question. There are times now 30+ years later when I have to remind myself to look people in the eye.

    • I guess there are always exceptions and definitely in this instance. It’s the people that purposely avoid eye contact that bother me. I really should be more understanding given I don’t know why they do it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. The first time I took my new father-in-law to lunch, the thing that impressed him the most was that I didn’t look around the room, but focused on him. He mentioned my eye contact and how my interest in what he had to say meant the world to him. I know that day solidified our relationship. Brenda

    • I love it when people make eye contact when we’re having a conversation. It shows me they are listening. I make it a point to look people in the eye, and it drives me nuts when someone is looking all around the room, anywhere but at me when I’m speaking. Thank you for sharing your sweet story with me. What a wonderful first impression you made!

  7. As someone who was born visually impaired, I probably have a different take on all of this, but that’s why I thought it was and is such an interesting topic. I used to be able to make out faces, and so I learned to look at people when talking, but any child who was born totally blind never had that instinct. Until someone realizes I am blind, they may think I am being rude when I don’t immediately look them in the eye. As I lose more of my sight I try to still remember to look at a person when I’m speaking to them, but it does get harder and harder. It’s sometimes the most difficult thing to try and exist in a world where eye contact is so necessary. I had the most worry about that whole romance thing because I had read all the romantic novels about people looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. It is made more difficult, but not impossible, as I now know. As for the arguing thing, that could be why I don’t seem to get into as many of them.
    🙂

    • What an interesting perspective. Thank you for sharing it with me. I imagine in a world full of situations that involve eye contact, it is definitely more difficult to convey that you are not being rude. The funny thing is, I have met so many people who are clearly uncomfortable when I make eye contact with them and probably prefer I didn’t do it.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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