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More PsychNotes: Communication

February 1, 2017       

Assertion 101: The Importance of Eye Contact
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

two people in conversation looking at one another
Although most people are aware, at least at a subconscious level, of the importance of eye contact when communicating, many people still have trouble with this critical component of being assertive. This issue may even be more pressing today with everyone attached to their mobile devices. I have noticed so many conversations in which people are looking at their device rather than the person they are talking with.

Yet, it is still true that if you want to be effective in your communication (i.e. “Win friends and influence people”) you need this basic non-verbal behavior. As simple as it sounds, it can still be difficult for several reasons:

1) Attention. To make eye contact is to give someone your attention. However, people's attention is often easily diverted. For those, though, willing to make eye contact and give someone attention, it is a powerful communicator. Especially today when attention is becoming a rare commodity. Even a quiet conversation in a restaurant these days has to compete for attention not only with mobile devices but also with televisions. Yet, people love and thrive on attention, so a simple act such as eye contact can make you a sought-after person.

2) Appropriate amount. Sometimes when people are trying to make better eye contact they go overboard and the eye contact can become awkward for both people. Eye contact is not staring at someone for prolonged periods but it means to make consistent eye contact with brief intervals of breaking eye contact. However, the length of eye contact may vary with the type of situation and the purpose of the communication. A general rule of thumb may be to take your cues from the other person—that will tell you their comfort level with eye contact.

In addition, it is common for people to break eye contact for a few seconds when they are speaking to an individual. But with a group a person breaks eye contact by looking at another person in the group. Also, in a group it is important to give equal amounts of eye contact to those in the group.

3) Eye blink rate. Not only is it necessary to be aware of how much eye contact is comfortable, you may also need to be aware of your rate of eye blinking. When people don't blink at all it can be perceived as aggressive. However, when someone is stressed they may blink more frequently which can be interpreted as being anxious or lacking self-confidence. Normal rate of eye blinks is about 17 per minute but that increases to 26 per minute during a conversation (Bentivoglio et al., 1997).

4) Discomfort. Some people, especially those with low self-esteem, are uncomfortable making eye contact. So initially changing this behavior can be uncomfortable. However, it will become easier especially as you notice more positive reactions from other people.

5) Practice. It may seem silly to practice an unconscious behavior such as eye contact but by being aware of it you can become better at it. People think eye contact should be natural, and for some people that may be so, but the truth is we often need to practice effective non-verbal behavior. In my psychology training they videotaped us and critiqued us on such behaviors because communication is a critical part of providing therapy. So, if you want to be more effective in your communication, start paying more attention to eye contact and how to make it more “natural.”

Bentivoglio, A.R., Bressman, S.B., Cassetta, E., Carretta, D. Tonali, P., and Albanese, A. (1997). Analysis of Blink Rate Patterns in Normal Subjects. Movement Disorders, 12, 1028-34. DOI:10.1002/mds.870120629

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Dr. Monica Frank

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