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.
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