Friday, December 11, 2009

Eye Contact Matters

I drove through a fast-food drive-in recently and ordered my usual breakfast. As I approached the window to pay, the young man never looked at me. He acknowledged me with a rote comment he must say dozens of times every day to customers, but he failed in the one opportunity he had with me to acknowledge me in a significant and meaningful way.

He told me the proper amount due. He used my credit card and charged the proper amount. He handed my card back along with the proper receipt. But he never looked me in the eye. He didn’t even look up from his cash drawer as he handed me my credit card and receipt. What a shame that he is allowed to do that job all day long, yet he stumbled over one of the most important acts of human kindness that matters the most.

Eye contact lets you know that you are the focus of someone’s attention and that you are noticed. Our eyes are one of the most important channels we have when it comes to communicating and relating to people. By using appropriate eye contact you communicate several things.
I am paying attention
I am beginning to trust you
I acknowledge you
I honor you for these moments we are in conversation
You have my attention
I am present with you
I am interested in what you have to say

In one-on-one conversations, our message is conveyed in these ways?
10% by the words we use
40% by the tone of our voice
50% by our body language and this includes eye contact

Research conducted by Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario Canada, reveals that people in a group discussion will speak up more if they receive a greater amount of eye contact from the other group members.

In our American culture it is considered bad form and we are considered untrustworthy by not making good eye contact. However in some cultures too much eye contact can come across as trying to provoke your listener. I was told once by a very cultured Hispanic gentleman that in his culture eye contact of a prolonged nature is considered a threatening gesture and should be avoided.

In the Arab culture a lot of eye contact is preferred and too little could be considered disrespectful. In speaking with my friend Sina, a Persian, he comments that he keeps his eyes focused on a person’s eyes and mouth during a conversation.

In the Mandarin culture, my friend Annie tells me that a younger person will limit the amount of eye contact when greeting and conversing with someone older than themselves. This is a show of great respect to the elder person.

In the South Asian culture too much eye contact is generally regarded as aggressive and rude.

During a sales presentation to one or two individuals at a time I use eye contact from the very beginning as I greet each member of the party. It is easy to focus on each person for just a few brief seconds and go back and forth without the uncomfortable long glances. Of course, use eye contact when asked a direct question, but include the other members in your group as you give the answer.

The eyes can give valuable clues about how a person thinks. *People have different mental maps which drive their behavior. Kinesthetic people tend to look down more, while visually oriented people spend more time looking up, and auditory individuals look sideways. “This is because they each favor one sense to code and sort general information as well as to express it,” writes Nicholas Boothman (*How to Connect in Business in 90 Seconds or Less).

Eye cues can tell you more than with whom you’re dealing; they can also tell you with what you are dealing. When people look up and right, they are probably constructing or making up their answers. When they look up and left, they are more than likely remembering an answer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”

Make people feel important. Focus on one person at a time and look them in the eyes.

Michael Biggs is a speaker, writer, speech coach and vocal soloist. He lives in Edmonds, WA. with his wife Carolyn. His company is called Up-Words, “Offering Hope, Encouragement, and Inspiration One Word at a Time”. He is available to speak to your business or organization. Please contact him at 206-349-1888 or email him at

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