Monday, 14 May 2012

The importance of eye contact when communicating

I recently received an email from one of my blog readers, Helen Hastings-Spital,  regarding my last article about communicating effectively. Helen is a UKCP registered psychotherapist based in Cirencester and has sent me some really interesting information about eye contact in communication, which she has kindly allowed me to share with you.

"Eye contact is an important aspect of good communication as it can help to get our point across to our audience in a powerful way.

Maintaining eye contact suggests you’re interested in what the other is saying while little eye contact or avoiding eye contact can suggest you/the other are disinterested, anxious, shy or even dishonest. Most people can’t look you in the eye while telling a fib or an outright lie!

Staring intensely at someone can make him or her feel acutely uncomfortable – they can feel ‘pinned down’ or trapped by your gaze.  An intense gaze can imply deep interest but can also be interpreted as confrontational, intimidating or a challenge to the authority of the speaker (e.g. being ‘stared down’.)

So what’s the ‘right’ amount of eye contact to make? In natural conversation, listener and speaker maintain an unconscious rhythm in their eye contact. The speaker will maintain eye contact with the listener for between 5-7 seconds before looking away. When eye contact is re-established with the listener immediately, this unconsciously indicates the wish of the speaker to continue talking. If there is a longer pause before re-establishing eye contact this is an implicit invitation by the speaker for the listener to respond and begin talking. This non-verbal guide to ‘turn-taking’ in conversation is learned from a very early age through what are called ‘proto-conversations’. In this process the m/other and baby engage in eye contact and sounds/gurgles that establish the art of turn-taking in a pre-verbal form of communication. Later this learning is transferred to guide effective turn-taking in conversation.

Interestingly, changing the length and frequency of eye contact can change the pace (speed) of a conversation. Lengthening the time of eye contact made with a speaker can increase the pace and intensity of the conversation. As a listener, looking away more frequently may slow the talker down, allowing more space for thought and reflection.  Why don’t you experiment next time you’re trying to communicate something!

But beware – know your audience! Some cultures consider direct eye contact as rude and aggressive. In Middle Eastern cultures eye contact between members of the opposite sex is seen as potentially provocative, so is avoided, while in Asia/China avoiding eye contact with a superior is seen as a sign of respect. In most of Europe and the USA, maintaining eye contact is a necessary part of good, honest, powerful communication.

Finally, psychology research has shown that when words (content of speech) and non-verbal behaviours (eye contact, body posture, facial features) are mismatched (e.g. the speaker says they are happy to see you but doesn’t make eye contact) the listener will place more trust in the non-verbal cues to rate the truth of a statement rather than believing the spoken words!"

So there you have it, eye contact is an incredibly important part of communicating effectively. Thank you very much to Helen for her guest post on my blog, I am certainly going to try varying my eye contact with people to see what effect it may have.

If you think you have an interesting article to share with my blog readers, please do send me an email at

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