The Importance of Eye Contact
Here’s a scenario. You’ve just met someone and you appear to be having a nice conversation. The topic of discussion looks to be a joint area of interest for you and the person you’re speaking with. However, you notice that throughout the conversation, the person is not looking at you but more so looking over your shoulder or to their left and to their right. It’s pretty clear that the person is not giving their undivided attention to the conversation.
Eye contact says: You’re the only person I’m listening to right now. It is the most overlooked aspect of body language and is easy to forget when you are trying to handle multiple things at once while talking to someone. Looking down or away from them can come off as aloof, especially if the person is telling you about something important or trying to get your attention. Eye contact also says you are comfortable in your own skin. That you are confident and that you are honest.
With eye contact, you want to try and do it with a person as you are speaking and while they are speaking. No need to stare at them of course or they might feel awkward. Just keeping a delicate balance between eye contact and no eye contact can make a world of difference.
The Great Communicator
President Ronald Reagan was known to many as “The Great Communicator”. Many attribute his political success with his ability not just to speak to the American people, but to communicate with them. While he was often given a hard time for his lack of detail, he was able to take things that a public may not understand otherwise and simplify it down to a way that all could understand, including solutions to the issues such as the Cold War. Entire books have been written on Reagan’s ability to communicate, but his reputation as The Great Communicator boils down to three basic traits: he was clear; he was simple; and he was sincere. Being simple and clear is easy for most people to understand and become better at it with practice. The magic ingredient here is being sincere. How can a person practice being sincere? Let alone communicate with sincerity? One of the basic parts of communicating with sincerity is making and keeping eye contact.
I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few people who have spoken with Ronald Reagan on a number of occasions, and they all told me of one common characteristic that Reagan had while they spoke with him. They could tell that they were speaking “with him” rather than “to him.” So what do I mean by that? They all told me that when they spoke with Ronald Reagan, it was as if it was only you and him in the room and no one else. Ronald Reagan never took his eyes off the person speaking with him. It wasn’t a blank or cold stare but more so a person sincerely interested in hearing what they had to say at that moment.
Other Great Communicators
So was this trait of eye contact copied by other American presidents? An acquaintance of mine by the name of Charles Garcia was a White House Fellow during the Bill Clinton administration. Charles Garcia is also the author of “A Message from Garcia” and “White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization”. During one conversation with him, he told me how every time he had a chance to speak with President Clinton, he was made to feel as though he and the president were the only people in the room at the moment of the conversation. When I asked him how he did that, Charles mentioned that no matter what else was happening in the room, President Clinton never took his eyes off of him during the conversation. Even when it was such a brief conversation such as when the president and his wife are in a greeting line at an event, when you were face to face with the president, he was looking you straight in the eye with a caring and sincere interest in what you were saying. Charles Garcia also had many similar scenarios where he was able to have a conversation with the following presidential administration of George W. Bush. The experience he felt with President Clinton, he also experienced with President Bush. No matter who else was talking or what else was occurring in the room, the president was looking at him in the eye for the entire conversation. Were both presidents staring at him during their conversations? No. They would occasionally glance down or to the side for a brief second but then go right back to looking at Charles in the eye as they continued their conversation.
One note to be aware of with eye contact is the interpretation of it that varies by culture. It’s well known that in Western countries such as the United States, giving those in power eye contact is revered. However, in Eastern countries, eye contact with those in a position of power is viewed as rude and disrespectful. It’s important to recognize these differences, since eye contact can mean many different things depending on the setting and the people locking eyes.
Let’s Have Coffee
I was at a recent meeting over coffee with someone who I met the week prior. It was just the two of us getting together to converse about what each one of us did and how we may be able to help each other out with business and/or connections. She was a very well-spoken person who had a lot of very interesting things to say. There was one thing however that stood out to me. Whenever she spoke, she would often not look me in the eye. She simply kept glancing around the room as if to see who else was there. When I started to notice this, I kept a mental note to see how often she would look me in the eye when she spoke. What I noticed was that she probably looked at me for no more than 20% of the time she spoke. She did however look right at me whenever I spoke, but the fact that she did not look me in the eye when she spoke began to grate on me a little when it came to the respect department.
Without meaning to, I began to feel a little distrustful of the person. We made an appointment to get together over coffee and yet she did not appear to have the same expectation as me for the meeting. Whether it was truthful or not, that is the feeling that I was getting during our time together and it was resulting all from the lack of eye contact. By the way, based upon my earlier comment about East meets West, this person was born and raised in the West so that wasn’t the reason for the lack of eye contact. During our conversation, she talked about various stories and issues. At times pointing out to me some of the well-known regional leaders who were apparently also having coffee or lunch in the room with us (Note: We were having coffee in a place frequented by many local politicians and community leaders). Sometimes, the topic of discussion involved some of the local leaders who were in the room and so she pointed them out to me during our discussion. Personally, I did not care that the mayor of the city was sitting at the table to my right. Also, I did not care that a well-known author was in the room as well having lunch with a local non-profit leader. The reason I didn’t care was because I usually make it a point to listen and be interested in the conversation I’m having with a person while I’m having it. The young lady and I made an appointment to get together for a particular reason. For me, a person’s time is always valuable and I treat it as such.
Can it be said that she wasn’t interested in the conversation that we were having or in the reason for us getting together over coffee in the first place? That is always open for interpretation. There was no need to say anything to her. What I can say though is that for me the lack of eye contact here defined this conversation and my view of the person in my eyes (no pun intended…or maybe it was 😎 ).
What are your thoughts on eye-contact?