“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” “Don’t you eyeball me!” Two phrases that demonstrate the dichotomy of eye contact. European cultures consider it rude not to look at the person who is speaking. However, many Asian cultures consider it intrusive and disrespectful to give too much direct eye contact. Add to the equation the brain’s unique way of processing input, and suddenly knowing where to focus your gaze during a conversation becomes a risky endeavor. One fact about the brain helps explain why eye contact is fraught with complexities. The fact is: one of the most challenging acts the brain can engage in is communicating with nonfamilial persons.
People who are not part of our immediate social group are almost always considered a threat by the brain. Unfamiliar people are difficult to communicate with because we don’t know how to read their vocal tone, body language, or facial expressions. Eye contact is tricky because humans are a product of both evolution, and socialization. DNA wires us to behave in accordance with how our ancestors evolved. However, the brain is a malleable organ, and will rewire itself according to social influences and personal experience.
When it comes to eye contact, many people unknowingly use it incorrectly. For example, say you want a colleague to open up about a sensitive issue. You sit down across from him so you are facing each other. To encourage conversation, you look directly at him and say, “Go ahead. Tell me what you think.” In this case, direct eye contact is detrimental. Throughout human evolution, people have spent their waking hours either walking side by side, working side by side, or eating side by side. Very few shared experiences involved sitting and facing each other. Directly facing another person signals either formality or familiarity. Formality certainly does not foster openness. Familiarity is a good for any relationship, but it is a tenuous feature in the workplace.
Parents are given the advice that, if they want their child to speak freely, engage in an activity that requires focus; so, you and the child aren’t sitting looking directly at each other. This might seem impossible in a work environment, but it can be done. Steve Jobs was well known for having walking meetings. Instead of sitting across from his desk, you and he would stroll around the grounds of Apple headquarters. Walking side by side eases tension, making communication easier and more productive.
I used this technique when I was asked to deal with a particularly challenging executive at a retail giant. This woman was known for her harsh demeanor; sometimes exploding at employees during meetings. When I arrived at her office, she said, “I’m glad you’re here. There is a lot of crap going on around here I want to discuss!” I said, “Great. I want to hear it. Let’s walk while we talk.” With that, I turned on my heels and strolled out of her office. If we had sat across from each other, the resulting constant eye contact would have increased the tension; risking bringing contention into the conversation. As we walked side by side around her building, she certainly didn’t become sunshine and roses, but she did mellow out enough that we could come to an agreement about how to proceed.
Other research has discovered that some companies have three people attend employee evaluations; the employee, the manager, plus the manager’s boss. The manager’s boss doesn’t sit next to the manager; with both of them staring down the hapless employee; he or she sits next to the employee. With the employee and big boss sitting side by side, the eye contact is directed back at the manager. This simple shifting of focus signals to the employee that this is a collegial meeting; meant to discuss goals and outcomes, not a meeting to put the employee under a heat lamp.
This is not meant to suggest that all eye contact is bad. Regular checking in with others in a conversation with glances and visual acknowledgement is crucial to effective communication. However, it is important to maintain awareness of whether the type of eye contact you are employing is generating the results you want. The eyes are called the windows to the soul. They are also windows to a good working relationship.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.