The Eyes Have It: Refining Your Social Skills Through Appropriate Eye Contact

In order to engage with colleagues professionally and effectively, it’s crucial to eliminate any preoccupations with or insecurities about our own communication techniques. Having a solid handle on our social skills in the workplace assures those communications go smoothly, and that we don’t misrepresent ourselves, or worse, send off mixed signals or open up the possibility for social blunders. In my recent article Put’er There: The Social Skills Behind Our Most Common of Greetings, I focused on the importance and variations of the modern handshake, including a primer on the challenges that women face with this custom.

This time around, I’d like to continue in that social skills vein by directing the discussion to another essential communication trust-builder: Eye Contact. We as humans don’t often consider the eyes to be as communicative as they are, since they don’t appear to have the same expressive versatility as, say, our mouth muscles. The fact is, few facial or body parts convey our emotions as accurately and as swiftly as the eyes. From comfort and discomfort, to excitement and concern, to joy and despair, the eyes have it. That said, being in control of what the eyes express is another skill that can enhance our relationships with colleagues. Let’s have a look.

Control The Chemistry

In most cultures, appropriate eye contact builds trust. Think about it: When we don’t look someone in the eye during conversation, it can imply subservience, or perhaps a shady character. But when we do hold eye contact, authentic communication unfolds, and we can send the positive signals that we intend. Take this exchange to the level of neuroscience, and you can truly be on the same page as the other person. That’s right! Eye contact stimulates mirror neurons, connecting two people on an imperceptible level and resulting in an accurate understanding what’s being discussed, in real time. For instance, as you’re speaking and I’m listening and looking at your eyes, my neurons begin to fire simultaneously with your neurons, and our brains align.

Credited to Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ)

These mirror neurons can be further leveraged by leaning in towards the other person to show you’re interested in what they’re saying. Subtly mimicking the other person’s body language takes this a step further by subconsciously giving them a shot of dopamine, the feel good hormone (imitation is the highest form of flattery!). Best of all, it’s all happening under the radar.

The Power of The Smile

The challenges behind eye contact can be felt both in gender differences and cultural differences. A woman looking into a man’s eyes, for example, can be interpreted as flirtatious and forward. But there is a way to correct for this, and it involves crafting your own technique for looking instead of gazing. As you’re conversing, depending on how you want to come off, make sure your eye contact varies. A good rule is to be looking at someone squarely in the face about 70% of the time. If all this looking makes you uncomfortable, focus on their nose or their ‘third eye’– an imaginary spot that’s centered on their forehead. If you’re in dominance mode, more eye contact may be appropriate.

Then consider your smile. Not only is it the first thing you notice about someone (if you’re like more than two-thirds of the population), a smile also sends a signal to your own sympathetic nervous system and others’ fight/flight/freeze instinct that all is safe. If you’re ever feeling nervous or anxious around someone, consciously create a small smile and soften your eyebrows. This move will tame that unsettled amygdala.

But wait, there’s more! A smile will trigger something in the other person and prompt them to smile back at you. Talk about a mutual ice breaker! It’s called Emotional Contagion. If you’ve ever seen someone yawn and ended up yawning yourself, you’ve experienced it. And although the same principle holds true with a smile, a false smile could send another signal— like the innate sense in others that your smile is contrived. There’s a solution to this as well. When your real smile is being stubborn, try pretending the person you’re facing is a long-lost friend or an exciting celebrity encounter. By the end of the conversation, you’ll have made a connection with the person that will inspire a real smile next time.

In my follow-up social skills article, I’ll move on to listening through the lens of Conversational Intelligence: listening to connect, which is listening without judgment, simply to find common ground, and listening to understand, which means standing under someone else’s reality.