“I need no dictionary of quotations to remind me that the eyes are the windows of the soul. ” – Max Beerbohm
“Making greater eye contact with others can increase the quality of all of your face-to-face interactions.” – Brett and Kate McKay, The Art of Manliness
Making better eye contact is an easy to learn skill that can improve the quality of relationships in your life.
A few years ago I was inspired by several sources (most of which are referenced throughout this post) to work on making better eye contact. I was surprised at the far reaching impact it had. At home in Chicago, the city came alive and suddenly seemed full of real people with emotions, personalities, and dreams. When traveling, I was better able to communicate with and connect to those whose language I barely knew; from tea-shop keepers in China to Palestinian street vendors in the West Bank.
Becoming better at eye contact is simple and can be accomplished fairly quickly. As Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love and Life, describes, “in my experience training myself and others, you can become a world-class master of eye contact in about 2 weeks.” It’s an easy way to become better connected to those around you and become happier as a result. In a world where the majority of people are glued to the 4 inch screens we carry in our pockets, a few small changes can make a big difference.
For those of you pressed for time, the main takeaways are summarized below. For those who want more info, read on to learn how to become an eye contact expert!
- Making high-quality eye contact is important.
- You can get better at eye contact with practice.
- Look people in the eye, just not for too long! 3-5 seconds is best.
- When you break eye contact, look away horizontally – ie to the side, not up or down.
- Keep a neutral expression and a soft gaze – I try to be just slightly on the positive side of completely neutral.
- Be friendly, respectful, and have fun connecting.
Why You Should Make Better Eye Contact
Even if you don’t want to become an expert, understanding the basics of eye contact can have a huge impact on how others perceive you. It can be especially important when meeting someone, as you only have 7 seconds to make a strong first impression. According to authors Brett and Kate McKay, numerous studies have shown that people who make higher-levels of eye contact with others are perceived as being more warm, personable, attractive, likeable, qualified, skilled, competent, valuable, trustworthy, honest, sincere, confident, powerful, and emotionally stable.
Former President Bill Clinton is a great example of someone who projects the qualities listed above. He is known as a master of eye contact, and according to Ellsberg, it is one of the big secrets to his legendary charm and persuasion.1
Why Eye Contact is So Important
Along with allowing us to see, our eyes were made for connecting with other people. Unlike speech, which works best when one person is speaking and the other is listening, our eyes allow us to both send and receive information at the same time. The amount of white in our eyes makes it easy for others to quickly deduce where our attention is, and the surrounding muscles help us to convey emotion. According to psychologist Frans de Waal, this behavior is also displayed by Chimpanzees, our primate cousins. When making up after a fight, chimps make eye contact from a distance to check the moods of others before approaching to kiss and embrace.
“The human propensity to look to someone’s eyes in order to decipher what they’re thinking starts very early in life. Around 9-18 months, infants will begin to look to their parents’ eyes to figure out what they’re trying to convey when their face is otherwise ambiguous. And we continue to do this for the rest of our lives.” – Brett and Kate McKay2
Along with attention, information, and emotion, the eyes can also communicate our personality and a sense of who we are. There is good reasoning behind the popular proverb, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Scientists have shown that the same genes responsible for the patterns and color of the iris (the colorful part of the eye) might also be linked to the development of the part of the brain that controls our personality.3
The eyes also play a huge role in our awareness of “mind” in others, known as the Theory of Mind. According to wikipedia, “it is typically assumed that others have minds by analogy with one’s own, and this assumption is based on the reciprocal nature of social interaction, as observed in joint attention, the functional use of language, and the understanding of others’ emotions and actions.”4 All of these things can be conveyed with the eyes.
Five Tips for Higher Quality Eye Contact
- Look others in the eye, but not for too long without a pause. There is a careful balance in the amount of time that is appropriate: too quick and you can seem weak or uninterested; too long and it can become awkward. Most people suggest somewhere between 3-5 seconds, and I’ve found that amount to work well in most situations.
- When you do break eye contact, look away in a horizontal direction. This causes you to be perceived as an equal, rather than as superior (if you look up) or inferior (if you look down.)
- Since it’s impossible to actually focus on both of someone’s eyes at the same time, a common tip is to focus on the space between them. While this can be less intimidating than looking at the actual eyes, it’s not quite as natural and you can sometimes get caught doing it. Instead, Brett and Katie McKay suggest focusing on one eye at a time and switching back-and-forth between them.5
- If you are giving someone your attention or involved in a conversation, remain present. Don’t try to fake it by looking back-and-forth between them and your phone. Try not to allow your mind to wander, or you may get caught with a “far-away look in your eyes.”
- Finally, when making contact with strangers, act natural! Ellsberg explains, “in all cases, keep a neutral facial expression and soft gaze. You don’t want anyone to think you’re trying to stare them down, rob them, or get them into the sack.” Personally, I try to keep my expression relaxed but just slightly on the positive side of completely neutral.
Where to Practice Making Better Eye Contact
Making better eye contact can be intimidating when you are just getting started. Luckily, it’s easy to gain confidence by practicing. Some great opportunities for this include:
- Looking at yourself in the mirror – just be silly and play around with it.6
- Practicing with family members – ask them for help, or make it a game.
- Making eye contact with service staff – the menu provides a perfect place to break your gaze.
- Attending an eye gazing party – like speed dating, but with no words.7
- Making eye contact with strangers when walking in the street – it’s easy once you know what to do!
How to Make Eye Contact With Strangers When Walking in the Street
Walking in the street provides a great opportunity to practice, and in my experience, nobody seems to mind when the eye contact is brief. Fewer people actually reciprocate your gaze than you might expect; most people just look straight ahead. When someone does look back at you, don’t look away quickly as if they caught you doing something wrong; just give a small smile and slowly move your gaze away in a horizontal/sideways direction. If even the idea of this sounds terrifying, try practicing with sunglasses on until you gain more confidence.
To make eye contact with strangers when walking, follow these three suggestions from Ellsberg. As Brett and Katie McKay point out, “they basically all revolve around the fact that you don’t want your eye contact to make people feel threatened.”8
- Keep your facial expression neutral and your gaze soft—the eye and face muscles are relaxed–no laser-eyes.
- Don’t initiate eye contact with someone from too far away; you should attempt to make eye contact with the person when you’re about 4-5 paces from crossing paths.
- Only look into their eyes for a quick moment—about one pace or just long enough to see their eye color.
“If you practice all this for a week or two as you go about your daily business, the quality of your eye contact will become better than most people’s, in a short amount of time.” – Michael Ellsberg
Ready to Make Better Eye Contact?
If you’re already an eye contact expert, congratulations! I’d love to hear about any tips you have that I missed.
If making eye contact is something you are excited to work on, choose one thing to focus on + one area where you are going to practice, and share it via email or in the comments below.
Lastly, if you enjoyed the content in this article (or any others), please share it with your friends on social media. Thanks!
- http://fourhourworkweek.com/2010/11/21/bill-clinton-reality-distortion-field/ [↩]
- “Look ‘Em in the Eye: Part I – The Importance of Eye Contact” http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/02/05/look-em-in-the-eye-part-i-the-importance-of-eye-contact/ [↩]
- Research performed separately by Orebro University and Liverpool John Moores University, cited by Steven Bancarz at http://www.spiritscienceandmetaphysics.com/scientists-discover-that-eyes-are-windows-to-the-soul/ [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind [↩]
- “Look ‘Em in the Eye: Part II – How to Make Eye Contact the Right Way in Life, Business, and Love” http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/02/12/look-em-in-the-eye-part-ii-how-to-make-eye-contact-the-right-way-in-life-business-and-love/ [↩]
- Inspired by the Reddit thread at http://www.reddit.com/r/socialskills/comments/19bkpz/how_to_master_eye_contact/ [↩]
- http://www.eyegazingparties.com/ [↩]
- http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/02/12/look-em-in-the-eye-part-ii-how-to-make-eye-contact-the-right-way-in-life-business-and-love/ [↩]