Eyes are powerful things. So powerful in fact, that they don’t need to be real to work their magic.
“There’s a study,” says executive mental coach and Harvard-trained behavioural economist Michael Balchan, “where people could get coffee in an office and to pay for it they put money in a jar, but no one is watching. They tried a few different methods, and by far the most effective thing was literally putting a pair of eyeballs on the cabinet. Simply feeling like they were being watched made people put money in the jar. I think this speaks volumes about the power of eyes,” says Balchan, and perhaps more specifically, eye contact.
And yet. Not to sound like your dad, but our modern world is one of Tinder swipes, automated chat bots and Amazon 1-Click. Human interaction is becoming an inconvenience, and eye contact something of a novelty. “It’s horrible!” says Lillian Glass, a body language expert. “Young people are being conditioned behind a screen – they don’t know how to relate to each other, how to talk, or look at subtle body language elements. It’s awful.”
It’s a glib diagnosis, however all is not lost. Sure, you might be making a multitude of micro-mistakes with your eyes, but the first step to recovery is acceptance. The second? Well, according to The 12 Steps it’s belief in a higher power, but in lieu of a godlike figure, here is some wisdom from eye contact experts, to help you in every given situation.
Don’t become an HR Manager’s Christmas party anecdote. Keep your eyes on the prize, not your new colleague and take on board these tips.
Failing Before You’ve Sat Down
Jobs aren’t won with eye contact, but they can be lost. “Most job interviews are actually decided in the first couple seconds,” says Balchan. “Our bodies have an ability to very quickly make assumptions about a person, based on the first couple of micro interactions. So giving eye contact, a handshake, then showing you are comfortable and confident can literally change the whole interview.”
Looking Around Too Much
“After that initial impression, all the questions just kind of confirm or disprove that initial perception,” Balchan says. “Most people, when thinking about an answer, will look to the side, or away. That’s fine, but make sure to also make eye contact back and forth when speaking. Looking at the wall or your hands is just a sign that you’re not comfortable, and it sends that signal to the interviewer.”
“Be careful about eye contact in the workplace, particularly in these days of sexual harassment,” says Glass. “When people are thinking they look really odd, and not very bright, so you’ve got to make sure that your jaw’s not slack and your lips are closed.”
She adds: “Don’t stare at anybody. People might misinterpret things, and then you’ll be part of the #MeToo movement!”
Getting a degree, working hard, grafting your way to the top – that’s swell. But be aware that your gaze represents a glass ceiling of its own. Eye contact can affect advancement, says Balchan.
“When you are able to confidently make eye contact, it’s a signal that you’re present, capable of leading and just seen as a more likeable person. More likeable people are generally promoted faster and further.”
What’s the answer? “Making eye contact with people above you at work,” Balchan confirms. “Give them the affirmation that you heard what they’re saying.”
Not to stress you out, but it takes all of 0.1 seconds to form an impression of a stranger. And a lot of it’s in the eye. Don’t make these date-based blunders.
Forgetting Real Life’s Not Tinder
“If there’s someone that strikes your fancy, by all means look in their eyes – that’s how you’ll attract them,” says Glass.
To peddle a cliché: you can’t win the Lotto if you don’t buy a ticket.
“It’s a super powerful tool,” confirms Balchan. “You’re communicating, just through eye contact and a gentle smile, which basically says ‘Hey, I see you, I’m interested’. It sets you apart, because so many people aren’t doing it nowadays.”
Holding Their Gaze Too Long
Look, no one said this stuff is easy. Having made a connection through eye contact, there’s then the inherent risk of throwing it all away by staring.
Balchan says: “People get uncomfortable after seven seconds of silence, but only two to three seconds of eye contact becomes uncomfortable.”
Glass adds that, “It’s a misnomer around the world that you’re supposed to look somebody in the eye. Why? Because a) it’s very intimidating and b) it’s a hostile act. Only if you’re madly in love – or madly in hate – with someone should you do extreme, [lasting], direct eye contact.”
The solution, Glass says, is ‘face contact’.
“Basically you look at the chin and face for one or two seconds, then the eyes for one or two seconds, nose for one or two seconds, then total face. In doing that you’re softening your gaze, and it gives the impression that you’re interested in the person; you’re connected.”
Looking Away Too Fast
Okay, you’re not looking for too long. But for God’s sake don’t look too little. “The worst thing you can do is immediately look away,” Balchan claims. “It’s as if you’ve been caught doing something wrong.”
Glass agrees. “That’s not a good sign, what you’ve done is broken engagement. And when you do that it suggests you’re not interested, and the person will be turned off.”
Breaking Eye Contact Vertically
“In relationship dynamics,” Balchan says, “looking away horizontally makes it equal. Whereas if you look up or down it kind of suggests you’re above or below the person. So, when making eye contact, just hold it for a brief instant, give a light smile, then look away in a horizontal direction.”
Forgetting To Blink
If you’ve managed to remember all of the above, terrific, except… you are remembering to blink, right? Please do, else you’ll look psychopathic.
“Someone not blinking puts our unconscious systems on alert, making us think ‘Why is this person staring at me?’” says Balchan. “When someone’s doing it for a long period of time it’s a red flag, and is a warning sign for us to pay attention, for all the wrong reasons.”
In A Relationship
Remember that tip about not making too much eye contact? Once you’re in a relationship, forget it…
Looking At Anyone (Or Anything) Else
“A big mistake is looking away – not maintaining eye contact,” confirms Glass. “If you’re looking at who else came in the room or what else is going on, it’s very disconcerting to your partner. Whether you’ve just started dating or have been married for a long time, it’s very rude.”
Looking At Your Phone
Smartphones are great, we know this. While they are an infinite space of technological possibility, they’re also a bleeping distraction that can rear-end a relationship, should you make more eye contact with Siri than your partner.
“It’s so important you acknowledge their presence with your eyes, instead of looking down at your device,” says Balchan. “Otherwise you’re saying that something else is more important, and your attention is elsewhere.”
Not Picking Up Signals
According to Glass, “You have to listen with your eyes and ears” in a relationship. At least 55% of all communication is non-verbal (some claim it’s up to 93%), and thus it’s key you’re awake to these countless cues.
“It’s all about the limbic system,” Glass says. “In the top part of your brain you have an auditory centre, a visual centre, and what processes it is the limbic system, which will tell you whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, up or down. So, if you are visually perceiving someone looking away from you, your emotions might say ‘I’m out of here’.”
Seemingly insignificant, yet the clue is in the title. You’re doing this stuff daily, so don’t screw it up at every turn.
Gawping At The Menu
“Don’t let things distract you,” says Glass, “Focus! Look at the server, not the menu. You really want to focus on people, otherwise you’ll come off as rude.”
Michael Balchan goes further. “It’s almost hard to have too much eye contact here, because most good servers are going to be looking at you. It’s all about making a connection, because if there’s no eye contact, that’s a signal that says, ‘Leave me alone’.”
Not Giving A Visual “Thanks”
Pretty simple, this. Words are ace, but so is acknowledging someone when they’ve just provided a service. Balchan explains that, “Eye contact can literally just say, ‘Hey, I see you. This coffee is amazing. You’re a human. Cool’.”
He adds: “It makes a big difference, so look them in the eye and say thank you.”