The Power of Eye-Contact
How To Use It Right
Even as a kid, we grasp the power of eye-contact. Many of us can probably remember being commanded to look a parent or guardian in the eye after being caught red-handed in an act of disobedience. It wasn't just unpleasant, it was almost impossible. Well, it turns out that doesn't change just because you get older.
Studies have shown that avoiding eye-contact is a big factor in social anxiety. Especially in conflict situations. One article even suggests that failing to make eye-contact, "could be one of the reasons that individuals with higher social anxiety and avoidance are perceived as less warm or are less well-liked." Wow. So not only can gaze-avoidance create anxiousness, it can make those who suffer from anxiety less popular. In other words, it can isolate them from potential friends who might be willing to help.
But if failing to make eye-contact can damage your ability to interact socially, it's also one of the easiest ways to improve. After all, it only takes a little bit of thought and a chunk of willpower. Pretty soon, you'll be feeling more confident in social interactions across the board--some of which might just surprise you.
That said, it obviously isn't the right move to just slouch around creepily, making direct eye-contact and holding it with everyone you meet. For most interactions, 2-3 seconds of solid eye-contact is more than enough. After that, glance at something else--be that a fixture of the room or simply the person's nose.
When conflict situations rear their ugly head, however, sustained eye-contact becomes extremely important. Watch MMA fighters facing off before a fight. Much of the contest is simply seeing who breaks eye-contact first. That's because, in primates, lowering the eyes is a symbol of deference. The party who breaks the gaze and lowers his or her eyes (and usually chin) is indicating that they aren't looking for trouble. So, if you'd like to avoid a scrape, maybe go ahead and break the staring contest off early.
On the other hand, doing so too quickly can signal that you're an easy victim. Sometimes the safest route is to simply pony-up and meet that intimidating stare head-on. If so, be sure you're communicating what you're after with the rest of your body language. A flat, emotionless gaze is usually safest. It's the look your parents gave you when they were trying to determine whether you had just lied or not. It's a truth-seeking signal to the other party. If you think a rougher outcome might be on its way, tilting the chin up ever so slightly and looking down the nose is typically the way to go. It communicates that you're willing to fight, if needed, and that you feel good about your chances.
If you are a person who is often nervous, then, try making eye-contact more often. You might be surprised the impact it has on your life.
Langer, Julia, Michelle Lim, Katya Fernandez, and Thomas Rodebaugh. “Social Anxiety Disorder Is Associated with Reduced Eye Contact During Conversation Primed for Conflict.” Cognitive Therapy & Research 41, no. 2 (April 2017): 220–29. doi:10.1007/s10608-016-9813-x.