Why Eye Contact Is Important (With 8 Tips and Alternatives)
Updated September 7, 2022
Using valuable professional skills can lead to getting a job offer or maintaining healthy workplace relationships with coworkers. By taking the time to identify which skills you perform well and which ones need more work, you can give yourself the best chance of becoming a well-rounded individual who is respected in the workplace and in daily life.
In this article, we review why eye contact is important and tips on how to improve your eye contact and maintain eye contact during an interview or another work-related situation. We also discuss alternatives to making eye contact if this kind of body language doesn't apply to you.
Why is eye contact important?
Eye contact is when you and another person look into each other's eyes. It is a form of body language that conveys a number of fundamental qualities about yourself and how you view the other person. Eye contact can help you foster meaningful professional relationships and thus improve your professional identity among employers and coworkers.
Although eye contact can be helpful when talking with others, it's important to treat each conversation as its own unique situation and remember that some people cannot make eye contact, or are extremely uncomfortable doing so.
Here are a few reasons why it's important to make eye contact during conversations, if possible:
Makes you appear confident: In a job interview especially, portraying yourself as a confident individual can make the difference between whether or not you get hired by a company. Making eye contact with the interviewer can demonstrate that you are self-confident and therefore can handle the job in question.
Creates feelings of trust: In interviews or company meetings, maintaining eye contact can make those you're speaking with feel as though they can trust you. Eye contact can be an important part of fostering trust between you and others.
Displays your manners and creates likeability: Eye contact can be seen as a valuable personal skill that demonstrates to potential employers that you understand conversation etiquette. People who have strong eye contact can be perceived as well-mannered, and this in itself can create a sense of respect for that person.
Demonstrates your focus on the other person: An important part of business relationships includes mutual respect between you and coworkers or clients. By maintaining eye contact with the person who is speaking, you are showing that you respect what the person has to say.
Alternatives to eye contact
While discussing the value of maintaining eye contact, it's important to note that it's not appropriate to expect eye contact from every person. Blind and partially sighted people as well as those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social anxiety disorder or extreme shyness may have a very hard time making or maintaining eye contact.
According to a study published in The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, "since face-to-face communication relies heavily on nonverbal cues, people who are blind can be at a disadvantage in social situations." The study's findings suggest that a blind or partially sighted person can turn their head to face a sighted person as they speak to them as a substitute for establishing eye contact.
Some other strategies that can serve as alternatives to eye contact include using phrases and nonverbal vocalizations such as laughter and saying "uh-huh" to indicate that you're listening and agree or disagree with what's being said. You can also address the person you're interacting with by name, or by taking turns when speaking.
For some people, eye contact is extremely uncomfortable and should not be forced. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that individuals with ASD may have an oversensitivity to socio-affective stimuli, and a common strategy for decreasing their arousal levels is to avoid eye contact.
If you're unable to regularly maintain eye contact, you may consider letting your workplace or the person you're talking to know that you're uncomfortable making eye contact. You don't have to disclose a disability, but if you feel safe doing so, it could help you in requesting reasonable accommodations.
Tips to improve your eye contact
Maintaining eye contact can prove to be harder for some than others, but even those without strong eye contact can improve their skills with practice. Follow these tips to help you improve your eye contact:
Practice with a friend
Practice in front of a mirror
Challenge yourself in your daily life
Review cultural expectations pre-interview or meeting
Engage in eye contact with everyone present
Don't stare down the person you're speaking to
Incorporate other gestures
Take a break with note-taking
1. Practice with a friend
Enlist the help of a friend to practice your eye contact techniques. If you are preparing for a job interview, you can rehearse interview questions with your friend posing as the interviewer. Challenge yourself to make eye contact with your friend as you answer the practice questions. You can also ask for feedback on how they perceived you and your personality through your use of direct eye contact during the encounter.
2. Practice in front of a mirror
If you are preparing for an interview and there is not anyone available for you to practice your eye contact skills with, consider trying to maintain eye contact with yourself in the mirror as you rehearse interview answers. This also allows you to see what you look like while maintaining eye contact.
3. Challenge yourself in your daily life
Another simple way to improve your eye contact is by challenging yourself to make direct eye contact with people you interact with throughout the day. Make an effort to make eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store, the person who holds the door open for you, the people you live with and those you interact with at your job. By using daily social interactions to practice good eye contact, you can get more comfortable with it over time.
4. Review cultural expectations pre-interview or meeting
In Western countries such as the United States, eye contact is seen as a valued body language skill that conveys attention and respect to the speaker. However, in countries like Japan, too much eye contact is seen as disrespectful and aggressive. When speaking with someone, they often focus on other things, only taking brief moments to engage in eye contact with each other.
This is an important tip to consider, especially if your company has business relations with other countries, or if you are interviewing for a position in another country. Taking the time to review a country's cultural expectations will ensure that you remain mindful of them during a business situation.
5. Engage in eye contact with everyone present
If you are in an interview or meeting with more than one person, be sure to engage in eye contact with everyone who is present. This can help ensure that everyone in the room feels valued and heard. If you are the speaker, take the time when you're speaking to have brief moments of eye contact with each of your listeners. However, If you are listening to someone, your focus should be solely on that person and what is said.
6. Don't stare down the person you're speaking to
There is a distinct difference between making someone feel valued and making someone feel intimidated. Engaging in direct eye contact with someone for an abnormal amount of time could make them feel just as uneasy as if you were making little to no eye contact with the person. it is okay to take brief moments to change up where your eyes are focused and it can actually help the other person feel more comfortable as well.
7. Incorporate other gestures
In addition to understanding how too much eye contact can be intimidating to someone else, it is also important to make sure you are displaying positive body language signs. Just using eye contact will not demonstrate focus alone. It can be helpful to also display visible gestures and nonverbal cues that indicate that your attention is on the speaker.
By nodding, smiling and making small remarks in response to the points that the other person is addressing, you can help contribute to an organic and pleasant conversation.
8. Take a break with note-taking
If you are still worried about making eye contact, you can always use note-taking as an excuse to change your focus of direction. During interviews and meeting situations, it could be seen as a responsible act and it can also demonstrate your focus on what the speaker is saying. It should be noted, however, that you do still need to maintain adequate eye contact, taking small durations of time to jot down important points that are being made.
Nonverbal communication is one of many tools that can help you make a good impression in interviews and in your professional life. However, candidate assessments should be based on skills and qualifications, and workplaces should strive to be inclusive and understanding of individual differences in communication styles.
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