eye contact

The eyes have it

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Herman Melville famously said; “The eyes are the gateway to the soul”.

More importantly perhaps they are the key to establishing rapport (see “Leaders, NVC, and Charisma”) and also, along with voice pitch, for determining “turn-taking” in conversations.

On the latter point Margaret Thatcher once got into what looked like an argument with Robin Day as she appeared to constantly interrupt him.

On analysis what happened was that because Mrs Thatcher was constantly dropping her voice at the end of sentences (she had moved on from the shrill delivery she had when she was Secretary of State for Education & Science  and known as “milk snatcher Thatcher” and had been coached to cultivate a more “intensive care” voice), Day thought she had finished and moved in with another question before she had finished making her point.

Day obviously wasn’t watching her eyes just listening to her voice, and probably the producer’s voice in his ear-piece. So he probably had enough on his plate in terms of cognitive demand.

Breaking eye contact ie looking at the person, then looking away and then back again, signals that we now want to speak. If the other person is looking at you they will hopefully pick up on it and stop speaking to allow you to have your turn.

NB Avoiding eye contact can also mean people think you are shifty even though, in some cultures, it is not thought appropriate to look people in the eye.

The other benefit of breaking eye contact is to allow us to concentrate. I used to work for a boss who, whenever he asked me a question would then close his eyes and blink rapidly. It was most disconcerting at the time until I had another boss who, rather than read my reports (often quite long political policy documents), preferred me to read them out loud to him whilst he leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed. He said it helped him to concentrate.

Now, according to an article in the Observer magazine 24/10/10, researchers at the University of Stirling have found that 5-year olds doing mental arithmetic performed better when told not to look at the examiner but at the floor.

Children are drawn to faces; even babies prefer to look at a picture of an upright face rather than an inverted one. But focussing on faces takes brain power and can be distracting when carrying out other mental tasks – hence the need to break eye contact.

So when teachers said to you, as you looked to the heavens for inspiration; “the answers not up there”, how wrong could they be!