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  • Writer's pictureJody Glynn Patrick

Eye Contact: When it’s too much of a good thing

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Eye contact … you’ve been told that liars avoid it, so you purposely use a lot of it when trying to assure another person of your truthfulness. Surprise! Research with regard to deceptive nonverbal cues suggests that a liar actually will typically engage in more eye contact than a truth-teller. And guess what? Your audience innately knows that and responds accordingly. Too much direct eye contact, then, signals that you’re actually being disingenuous.

You’ve also been told to “look people in the eye” during sales calls or group presentations, and so you try hard to sustain eye contact. However, new research in oculesics (the study of eye contact to determine mood and personality) is counter-intuitive to that instruction, too: When you desperately want to convince someone of your opinion, maintaining steady eye contact might actually backfire.

If you want to make the best possible case for your product or point of view, consider these findings by psychologists Julia Minson (Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) and collaborator Frances Chen (University of British Columbia), as reported in a paper published in Psychological Science. Using eye-tracking technology in their experimentation, they proved that people will more likely accept your point of view if, when speaking, you look at an angle to them, or focus your eyes on the person’s mouth rather than stare at their eyes. Two different research studies bore the same result: Unless a trusted relationship already exists, prolonged direct eye contact triggers a primal avoidance response to domination. This raises a mental deflection shield of sorts, making the other person more resistant than amenable to your point of view.

How long is someone comfortable being stared at? Researchers at the University of Central Missouri found that it depends on whether the person addressing the subject is smiling or not. If someone talks to you with a smile, displaying a positive affect on his or her face, on average you will be comfortable with direct eye contact, without looking away, for 1.76 seconds. At that point, on average, you’ll feel a need to divert your eyes to his or her mouth or to look away altogether. Likewise, if you’re the one trying to influence another person and you’re serious (unsmiling) about the topic, he or she will only be comfortable with direct eye contact for about .84 seconds at a time.

But don’t try to fake it, or if you must, practice your business smile so that you inject some real passion into it. When forming real smiles (“Duchenne” smiles), the eyes narrow and create “crow’s feet” lines at the outer corners. We can all biologically detect a fake smile, and that sends a counterproductive signal to your audience. It’s nearly impossible to produce convincing fake Duchenne smiles, but recent research does hint that some people might be able to manage it with practice.

During first introductions, brief but direct eye contact sends an unconscious signal to people that you respect them (or are confident of yourself in the situation). However, holding eye contact for longer than is comfortable for Western society can make the other person feel threatened or held in contempt. So forget directives to maintain eye contact until someone looks away, and instead consider these approaches:

Introductions: There is a societal expectation to meet eyes upon introduction. When you meet someone or shake hands, look into his or her eyes approximately three to five seconds and then look to his or her mouth. That’s long enough to boost your charismatic influence without unconsciously tickling the other person’s “prey” response. If goodwill exists between you, he or she will be comfortable with up to seven to 10 seconds. Look away and then back to the eyes — that’s a more normal engage-release-engage exchange.

Conversation: Your eyes, in many ways, are a mirror to your soul. If you are not actively listening and letting a person “in,” your eyes will reflect it with a nonexistent or flat gaze. Look at the speaker and use your facial expression to respond. And remember that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.

Best practices: Smile. Bill Clinton is often cited as the most influential and charismatic man in America because of the response he gets from face-to-face meetings. The personality is his, but the behaviors can be replicated. He smiles the entire duration of an introduction. He also is comfortable maintaining facial eye contact — his eyes will flit to the mouth, eyebrows, and then back to the eyes rather than away or downward, signaling his interest in the conversation. Videos of him greeting people reveal he doesn’t make the cardinal mistake of looking at others in the room when engaged in conversation, either. Then he will look downward, but not away to another target.

In the end, it’s certainly important to use your eyes to signal that you are truly “present” during an introduction or conversation, but it could be even better to be “presidential”!

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