The Eyes Have It

eye_for_detailAre your eyes letting you down? This article explores the benefits of being a good listener in relation to communicating well with your clients, colleagues and family.

Good communication is important in every part of our lives, personal or at work, and contributes to our ultimate success in any arena. You can be the best accountant in the world but if you can’t communicate with your clients you will not reach your full potential. We don’t always make rational choices based on what is the best or good value; we also choose people and their services on criteria such as do we feel comfortable with them? Can we communicate easily with them? Inappropriate eye contact is one sure fire way of making people feel uncomfortable! And if people feel uncomfortable around you they won’t do business or make friends with you. They might remember you – but for all the wrong reasons!

Powerful eyes

Of all the ways we communicate with people, eye contact is the most powerful. Looking at people and meeting their eyes are the first steps towards striking up relationships and making a positive impression. Advertisers know that a face with eyes directed at the camera is an effective way to get people’s attention. The eyes most definitely have it.

Most of us easily recognise inappropriate eye contact; that glance that is held far too long, turning into a stare which becomes rude and perhaps threatening. For example, if we are on the tube or train in our own little personal space bubble, and someone glances for longer than a brief look, we feel that they are intruding on us and we usually feel uncomfortable. Or think about the person who just won’t look you in the eye; it’s hard to build up a rapport with someone who does that as it sends a message of either lack of confidence or dishonesty. It’s difficult to trust someone who cannot or does not make appropriate eye contact.

What is appropriate?

In ordinary conversation, eye contact plays an important role in ‘turn taking’. To start a conversation with someone you first need to establish eye contact. If that person looks back, ‘permission’ to speak has been given. Notice that as the conversation starts, if you are speaking you will look away from the listener with glances back now and again to check they are listening. When you are listening, you look more at the speaker, on average about three quarters of the time, with short glances of about 1-7 seconds. If you want to speak it’s important that you re-establish eye contact with the speaker. If you are in the audience of a larger meeting and you want to say something then make some physical movement like changing position to cause the speaker to look at you.

Eye contact in groups

If you are speaking to a group, or putting your point across in a meeting, try and make eye contact briefly with all of them to capture their interest. If you talk regularly to groups you will know that a good tactic with constant interrupters is simply not to make direct eye contact with them. But it won’t work with hecklers!

The same principle applies to meetings. Looking at someone allows them to interrupt you and you can lose some control; likewise if you need to interrupt whoever is holding the floor they will find it difficult to resist if you ‘catch their eye’ and signal your intention. And if you are in the audience, and don’t want to be asked any questions the chances are you will be sitting there with your gaze averted from the speaker. Teachers know this and pick on the pupil looking least interested!

Skilled speakers who want to emphasise their point or the strength of their convictions, will look directly at the audience and even make quick eye contact with all of them in order to give the impression that they are having a mini conversation with each person.

What are your eye movements telling others?

There is a lot of material on how we look when we are speaking or listening, and researchers have found that when we pause to choose our words, we usually look away from our listeners. Some to the left and some to the right. Apparently, if we look to the right we tend to be more scientifically minded while those who prefer the left are more likely to be religious or artistic. I’d be interested to hear if this accords with any observations you have made.

Cultural differences

It‘s important to note that all the research referred to and advice given applies to British or American norms. If you are from another culture yourself, or regularly work with other cultures, they may not hold true. For example, in some cultures direct eye contact is considered rude, or immodest, so it’s worth checking it out. If you have any examples relating to the above, I’d love to hear them.


Posted on April 20th, 2009 by

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