Eye Contact: Where to look and where to avert your gaze in a professional setting

PSOW Staff - Thursday, January 2, 2020
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If you want to know how important eye contact is, just ask that “silly rabbit” from the Trix cereal brand. In examining how eye contact produces a subconscious sense of connection between people, researchers at Cornell University manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on several Trix cereal boxes. The researchers then asked a panel of adults to choose their favorite box and discovered that the box most frequently selected was the one in which the rabbit was looking directly at them—and not away.

The conclusion is that eye contact, unlike Trix cereal, isn’t just for kids.

In fact, direct eye contact is one of the most powerful ways to make a real connection with someone and it’s an important gesture for most any business professional to remember. When someone uses eye contact in a sales pitch, presentation or public speech, he or she is judged to be more believable, confident and competent. In conversations, eye contact also tells the other person that you are listening and it actually helps people become a better listener.

Body language and communication experts say that direct eye contact should be made in the range of 40 to 60 percent of the time. If eye contact is less than that amount, a person is often thought of as shy, shifty, hiding something or lacking self-confidence and authority. One exception to this rule is that many brazen, untrustworthy people (and small children!) actually try to overcompensate their eye contact to “prove” they are not lying and hold a gaze until it’s uncomfortable for the other person.

Body language and communications expert Carol Kinsey Gorman, Ph.D., also notes some of the following interesting facts about eye contact:

  • Eye contact is reduced when we discuss something shameful or embarrassing or when we are sad or depressed. We also tend to look away as we assess internal thoughts or emotions.
  • We tend to increase eye contact when communicating with people we like, admire or those who have power over us.
  • In face-to-face communication, women make more eye contact with those they are talking to more so than men.
  • In general, we all tend to avoid eye contact in elevators, subways and other crowded areas. Gorman says that avoiding eye contact in these crowded situations (and maybe staring at our smart phones instead) is how we manage the insecurity of having our personal space being invaded.
  • In work environments, employees often keep their eyes down when the boss is asking a tough question or might look like she is going to ask for volunteers.

So what are some good eye contact rules to follow, especially as it relates to our  professional lives?

Follow the preferred direct eye contact ratio of 40 to 60 percent when communicating with others. If you do so more than 60 percent, the other person might feel as if they are “on the spot,” being examined or under a microscope—and you may be thought of as being negative or critical.

When you are talking, watch your listener’s eyes to see if you are holding his or her attention. Remember, if the person is not listening, it does not matter what you are saying. Gauging their eye contact can help you reshape your message or delivery the next time.

In a business conversation, your eye contact should be focused on the upper face, brows and forehead of the other person.

For more social conversations, it’s fine to focus your gaze in the mid face area of the other person, including their eyes and mouth. But remember, this is NOT a professional recommendation.

Finally, if eye contact brings your gaze to the chest or anywhere below–you have officially crossed the line of good professional conduct. Keep that gaze to the upper face and you will always be above board.

For more information on how you can be trained to advise, facilitate workshops and briefings on business protocol, professionalism and cultural awareness, check out Intercultural Etiquette and Protocol Trainer.  

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