I’m fascinated that making eye contact with someone can make you feel powerful or vulnerable or both simultaneously. Of all the tools in our communication inbox this makes it arguably the most powerful.
There’s an exercise we often use in our workshops to practice the art of eye contact. Participants pair up and sit with their knees facing one another. Remember staring contests as a kid? Well this exercise is kind of like that -- with a twist. We ask each pair to maintain eye contact for a full minute without talking or averting their gaze. There is a lot of fidgeting and giggling that happens during these two minutes!
At the minute mark we ask people to put their focus at the bottom of their feet while maintaining eye contact with their partner. Instantly the energy in the room changes. Laughing and unease dissipates and people are able to maintain a sense of calm and control while staying present with one another. For many of our clients, diverting their mental focus to another part of the body part while maintaining eye contact alleviates feelings of vulnerability and over-exposure. Some call this type of activity a mindfulness exercise.
Is Eye Contact Uncomfortable For Everyone?
Here are verbatim examples of feedback I’ve received from participants after completing the eye contact exercise described above before incorporating the mindfulness exercise. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.” “I felt like I was dying.” “ I felt like my skin was coming off.” All of these extreme sensations sparked simply by sitting across from someone quietly!
In July of 2016 British researches conducted an eye contact experiment at the London Science Museum. Nicola Binetti and his colleagues recruited nearly 500 visitors from 56 nations ranging in age from 11 to 79 years. Patrons sat across from a video of an actor’s face looking directly at them. The average amount of time most participants could comfortably hold eye contact with the video? 3 SECONDS. No one could hold eye contact longer than 9 seconds without needing to break away. Participants also filled out a personality survey which, “yielded a bit of a surprise: There weren't any correlations between personality and preferred length of locking-eyes.”
Take comfort that if you cannot stand the feeling of sustained eye contact you are certainly not alone! Yet, eye contact is a powerful tool for conveying confidence and power when connecting with an audience. So how to reconcile doing something you know will make you a better communicator that you also detest?
How to Harness the Power of Eye Contact
The mindfulness exercise described earlier is a great tool for one. Another trick to try is starting small. Make direct eye contact with everyone you come in contact with throughout your day. The guy you pick up your drycleaning from. The waiter the next time you go out to eat. The person sitting across from you on the subway even. Take baby steps familiarizing yourself with the sensation of being present and connected with another person.
If neither of the techniques outlined above feel like your cup of tea try setting an intention in advance for what you want your audience to feel or do. Do you want to impress your audience? Convince them? Excite them? Keep focus on your intended outcome while communicating with your audience and it may help you find comfort in the discomfort while making eye contact with your audience.
Remember, communication is a muscle and your ability to communicate confidently while harnessing the power of eye contact will only increase the more you practice!