For Powerful Communication, the Eyes Have It

Edition: October 2001 - Vol 9 Number 10
Article#: 1071
Author: Roseann Sullivan

Americans are hooked on eye contact, so look your conversational partners or members of an audience right in the eye. It's an essential first step in establishing trust, warmth, and intimacy.

Marriott Corporation recognizes the power of eye contact and has their employees trained to make eye contact with every guest. But it's not just a question of making contact, it's also important to make contact for the right amount of time and in the right way. Here are 10 tips to make eye contact work for you:

1. Eye contact should last for five to seven seconds. As Bert Decker says in his book You've Got to Be Believed to Be Heard, ''A feeling of involvement requires about five seconds of steady eye contact.'' Look at people for about as long as it takes to complete a sentence or a thought.

2. Too much eye contact is called staring. In the United States, it's never polite to stare at someone. This cultural imperative was hammered into my consciousness early one Sunday morning. Waiting for a table at my favorite brunch spot, I drifted off into a caffeine-deficient stupor. Unfortunately, my gaze was directed toward a rather gruff young woman who ended my stupor with an indignant ''What are you staring at?'' Play it safe by reserving your stares for the only culturally appropriate recipients animals and art.

3. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the pupils are clues to our emotions. When people are angry, disappointed, or lying, their pupils will usually constrict or narrow. Conversely, when people are excited or engaged in stimulating conversation, their pupils dilate or open wide. The next time you think your negotiating partners or poker pals are bluffing, check out what their pupils are saying.

4. People who are squinting are trying to say that they need more time or information before making a decision. They're processing their thoughts. When figuring out intense technical problems, people tend to squint until they figure out an ''eye-opening'' solution.

5. Eyebrows are an integral part of eye communication. Lifted eyebrows display interest, excitement, and surprise. If you find yourself dozing off during a meeting, you can get an instant energy boost just by lifting your eyebrows. And by doing that, you'll also send a message to everyone else that they are getting your undivided attention.

6. Don't get into a staring contest. Two cats, two cowboys, or two adolescent kids might get a kick out of trying to stare each other down. Businesspeople don't. Defuse tension by periodically breaking your gaze and looking away. Depending on the circumstances, prolonged eye contact can be intimidating or just too personal.

7. If you're not comfortable making eye contact, start by looking at the bridge of your conversational partner's nose. The effect will be similar to looking him or her directly in the eye. Gradually work your way to direct eye contact.

8. Notice eye color. Everyone has had a conversation with someone who did everything right but somehow didn't connect. That person probably had 85,000 other things on his or her mind. Noticing details like eye color will prevent you from being disconnected and force you to become more ''present'' when you present yourself.

9. Avoid the quick sweep approach with groups. Your high school speech teacher might have said it was OK for you to glance quickly at everyone in the group and then look over their heads or up at the ceiling. Don't do it. Today's savvy audiences know when they are being scanned, and they don't respond well to it. Instead, pick a few friendly faces in various parts of the room and engage them in eye contact. People sitting around them will feel connected too.

10. When answering questions from individuals in a group, involve everyone by making eye contact with more than just the questioner. The easiest way to do this is to maintain eye contact with the questioner while you are repeating the question, then pull back to include other members in the group. This will keep everyone's attention and allow you to enlighten the entire group with your response.

When it comes to effective communication techniques, few are easier to master than appropriate eye contact. Now that you know how to do it, give it a try. My guess is you'll get eye-popping results.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Roseann Sullivan teaches corporate and convention groups how to communicate in a manner that gets attention and gets results! Roseann can be reached by e-mail: or phone: 888/SPEAK2U (888/773-2528). Or visit her Web site at: