Psychology Relationships

Eye Contact – The Definitive Guide

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Steven Aitchison
Written by Steven Aitchison

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Eye Contact: Why Is It So Important?

Have you ever spoken to someone and they seemed to shift uncomfortably, looking at their shoes and failing to make eye contact with you? They maybe look you in the eye then immediately dart away looking at their shoes again.

For the more adept among us that type of behaviour is a bit odd.

If you know what I am talking about by avoiding eye contact with others, you'll know just how debilitating it can be when communicating with others.

Eye contact is important as it conveys an inner confidence. However, the trick to eye contact is making it a subconscious behaviour. If you become aware that you're not making enough eye contact or you're making too much, you become self conscious and that weird behaviour kicks in; you stare at one eye too long, making the speaker feel self conscious, you might stare at the chin too long if you are using a triangular approach to eye contact.

The truth is mastering the art of eye contact is not as easy as you might think.

You might think it's just a matter of looking people in the eye when you are talking and looking at people when you are talking, it's not that simple.

Eye Contact Exercise

To find out just how comfortable you feel with eye contact I am going to show you a video of someone who is just looking at the camera.

Look at this person as if you were talking to one of your friends and feel how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with making eye contact.

How did you get on?

Did you feel self conscious? Did you feel you couldn't look her in the eyes? did you find yourself laughing nervously? Did you feel attracted to her?

It's important to know what you feel like when making eye contact in order to become better at it.

Eye Contact in Infants

A 2019 study, looking at the affects of eye contact in babies from 9-10 months old, found eye contact led to an elevation in the infants' heart rates (HRs) and that HR during eye contact was predictive of later gaze following. Furthermore, increases in HR predicted gaze following whether it was accompanied by communicative cues or not. These findings suggest that infant gaze following behaviour is associated with both communicative cues and physiological arousal. 1

Unlike adults, who mostly know instinctively to break eye contact to help concentrate on what they’re saying, children will tend to maintain gaze even when asked a difficult question. Developmental psychologists have shown that children can benefit from being trained to avert their gaze to help them think things through more clearly. 2

Eye contact is deeply rooted in our DNA and can help in every area of our lives, from the partners we choose, the jobs we have to the friends we have. You are reading this article just now as your parents had some flirty eye contact that led to one thing that led to you being here nine months later.

Eye contact provides social information to the person you are listening to and talking to. Too much eye contact and you could be seen as aggressive, too little eye contact and you can be seen as having no interest in the person speaking. It is an often overlooked skill to have and an under utilised skill when communicating with people. You can see masters of eye contact in great sales persons, politicians, and good public speakers, and of course when you're naturally attracted to someone.

Image of woman looking at the camera

I realised the importance of eye contact when I was counseling people face to face. I noticed when I broke eye contact the person would stop speaking. When I maintained eye contact the person would continue talking knowing that I was interested in what they had to say.

Research shows that "gaze functions to provide information, regulate interaction, express intimacy, exercise social control, and facilitate service and task goals." 3

Your Eyes Will Give Away What You Are Thinking

Your eyes can tell a lot about you and tell others even more simply by the way you use them.   Eye communication is a great skill to have and eye contact is a great tool to master.   We all use it and we all give away vital clues as to what we are thinking with our eyes.

References are made to our eyes in everyday conversation such as 'she has bedroom eyes', 'don't give me those puppy dog eyes', 'giving me the evil eye' and many more such phrases.

If you can learn the skill of reading eye signals and mastering the art of using eye contact it can make a huge difference in your personal and business life.

The Pupils

Your pupils and the size of them will give away a lot of secrets, and it's something we can't do much about. The pupils will either constrict or dilate depending on our state of mind. If we are aroused by something, or someone, our pupils will dilate and if we are turned off by something or someone our pupils will constrict.

Skilled street traders across the world look for the size of the pupils when bartering with their customers. If a customer sees an object and their pupils are fully dilated, then the trader knows they can keep the price of the item at the higher end.

When we are excited by someone we like, our pupils will dilate, and when we are in the company of someone we don't like, our pupils will constrict.

Take a look at these two photos. Which one do you prefer?

2 images of same woman one with dilated pupils

The first photo shows the pupils constricted and the second photo shows the pupils dilated. The one with the pupils dilated would normally be the one that people picked, as it is more seductive and deemed more attractive when the pupils are dilated.

Next time you are talking to someone pay attention to the size of their pupils, don't go right up to their face and make a nuisance of yourself, but just casually watch the size of their pupils. This will tell you what excites them when they are talking, it might also tell you if they like you or not as we can rarely hide our emotions with our eyes.

Different Types of Eyes

Wandering Eyes

Have you ever noticed when you are talking to someone that their eyes are looking everywhere and not at you. This in itself is an obvious sign of distraction or boredom however, it also means that the person is looking for a way to get out of your space. Looking out a window when someone is talking to you could mean they would rather be outside.

If you do this, be careful of the signals you are giving to the other person, unless you specifically want them to know you don't want to be with them.

The Angry Eyes

image of angry man

When we are angry our eyes become narrower, brows are furrowed and our pupils constrict. It's quite easy to tell if someone is angry when they have all of the above. what if they don't show the above body language signals? Well, we have to look for other body language clues such as constriction of the lips, flared nostrils, staring, clenching of the jaw etc.

When you are speaking to someone who is displaying signs of anger you can either back down or stand up for yourself, depending on what the situation warrants.

If you stand up for yourself you should be holding eye gaze and not break it. This shows the other person that you are not intimidated by them. If you are the one to break eye contact in a heated argument you have all but lost the argument.

The Seductive Eyes

image of woman with seductive gaze

It's quite easy to tell if someone likes us by the size of their pupils. In a well lit room, if you are speaking to someone face to face you can see the size of the other person pupils. If the eyes start to dilate they are interested in what you have to say or they find you attractive.

However, this is not so true in a darkened room like a nightclub as the size of our pupils will dilate to let more light in, in order to see better in the darkened room. So be careful to read the signals correctly before making a fool of yourself.

There are other ways to seduce someone with your eyes. The classic Lady Diana look with her head down and eyes looking up was one of the reasons so many people warmed to her. This type of look makes the observer feel more maternal or paternal and also brings out the protector in men which made Lady Di more attractive.

Your Gaze

When we are talking to our friends and in social situations, and are looking and talking with another person for some time we unconsciously gaze at the persons face in a controlled manner. However, if we have lost confidence or we are not yet socially adept we can lose this ability.   Here is a quick guide on where to focus your gaze when talking to someone.

Social Gazing

When you are speaking in a social setting you don't want to stare into someone's eyes as this is a bit strange for someone to do, and a bit off-putting for the talker. To get over this, use a triangle approach. First look at one eye of the talker, then look at their mouth, briefly, and then move onto their other eye. This shows you are still interested in what they have to say as you have not looked away from their face.

The Flirty Gaze

When we flirt with each other the eyes still move in a triangular way but with more range, downwards. I know the women reading this will have experienced men who think you are talking from your breasts, which is quite disconcerting, and I'll explain a possible reason for this, apart from the obvious. However, we all do it, men and women, only women are better at it.

Image of young woman with seducing eyes

It has been shown that when we are walking toward each other from a distance, men and women, automatically check each other from head to foot. First time to check the sex of the person and second time to check the sexiness of the person.

Men are more likely to get caught checking out a females body, rather than looking them in the eye, because they have less peripheral vision than women. Women can look you in the face but still look at your body   because their peripheral vision is much better.

Our eyes contain two types of photo-receptors; rods and cones. Rods are responsible for scotopic vision, dark adapted vision. They also predominate the peripheral vision and women have more rods in their eyes than men do; hence why they have better peripheral vision and are better at seeing in the dark.

In Mark Manson's post, The levels of Eye Contact he suggest level six eye contact is The Smile:

"The sixth level of eye contact is The Gaze plus a smile. If the gaze is a clear sign telling you that they’re interested, throwing a smile on top of it may as well be a neon flashing billboard. If someone you find attractive gives you Level 6 and you don’t talk to them, not only are you an idiot, but you probably have some serious anxiety going on." 4

The Controlling Gaze

If you are looking to intimidate someone when you are talking to them, or are trying to control the conversation look at the area known as "˜the third eye' which is the spot just between the eyebrows.

Many men do this to try and intimidate the people they are talking to and  to try and control a conversation.

Can You Tell if Someone is Lying With Their Eye Movements?

Short answer to that is no. However, by looking at other body language signals and looking at their eyes you can get a good idea if someone is lying or not.

With the work of Bandler and Grinder and their excellent work on NLP we have an idea of how our eye movements relate to how we access information from the brain, which can help to tell is someone is lying or not. 5

Visual Accessing Cues

image of woman looking up to the left

(VC) Visual Construction : Looking up and to the left.   The person is accessing information from their imagination and might possibly be making it up.   For example, if you asked someone what their dream home would look like they would, more than likely, look up and to their left.

If someone is lying about something and making stories up they might be using this eye movement.

image of woman looking up to the right

(VR) Visual Remembering : Looking up and to the right.   This is when we are actually accessing a memory and picturing it in our heads.   It is more than likely that this is a memory that actually happened.   Ask your friend what they had for dinner yesterday and they will most likely look up and to the right.

image of woman looking to the left

(AC) Auditory Construction : Looking middle and to the left. This is where our eyes might go if we were constructing a sound in our mind.   For example if you asked a friend to think of what their voice will sound like when they are 80 years old, they would more than likely look in this direction.

image of woman looking to the right

(AR) Auditory Remembering : Looking middle and to the right.   This is where our eyes might go if you were remembering a sound that you have heard before.   For example ask your friend what the sound of their partner sounds like and they will more than likely look in this direction.

image of woman looking down to the left

(K) Kinesthetic :Looking down and to the left.   This is the direction your eyes might go if you were accessing your actual feelings about something.   For example, if you ask a friend about their feelings on the issues of capital punishment their eyes might go in this direction.

image of woman looking down to the right

(AD) Auditory Digital : Looking down and to the right.   This is the direction our eyes might go when we are talking to ourselves.   We do this all the time and it is called self talk.   Believe it or not we talk to ourselves a lot and we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying attention to our self talk, but that is for another article.

The information above represents the majority of people, but it may   be different for some.   However, it is still possible to work out a persons representational system by observing them when you ask them questions.

Using the information above should get you started on the road to being able to read people using their eyes as signals.   Remember, as with all body language signals, that they should be read together and not separately.

Everyday Conversation and Eye Contact

We will use eye contact every day of our lives so it makes sense to learn the best ways to use your eyes to your advantage.

Certain situations demand different uses of the eyes. For example if your are arguing it is seen as strong if you can hold your gaze. If you are deferring to someone it is better to lower your eyes, if you are loving someone it is good to stare into the pool of the eyes.

6 Ways to Improve Your Eye Contact Skills

Talking to a group

When talking to a group of people it is great to have direct contact with your listeners. Don't make the mistake of maintaining eye contact with just one person as this will stop the other members of the group from listening. To get past this, focus on a different member of the group with every new sentence. This way you are talking to all of the group and keeping them all interested.

Talking to an individual

It is great to maintain eye contact when talking to a person however it can become a bit creepy and uncomfortable if you stare intensely at them. To combat this, break eye contact every 5 seconds or so. When breaking the eye contact don't look down as this might indicate the ending of your part of the conversation. Instead, look up or to the side as if your are remembering something. Try it just now: don't move your head, and think about the first time you started school. You will notice your eyes might move up or to the side as you try to remember this. So when your listener sees this they will think you are trying to remember something and keep on listening to you.

Listening to someone

When you are listening to someone it can be off putting for the talker if you stare at them too hard. The technique I use when I am counselling someone is to use what I call "˜The triangle'. This is when I look at one eye for about 5 seconds, look at the other eye for 5 seconds and then look at the mouth for 5 seconds and keep on rotating in this way. This technique coupled with other listening skills such as nodding, occasional agreement words such as "˜yes', "˜Uh "“huh' "˜mm' etc is a great way to keep the talker talking and to show them you are interested in what they are saying.

Arguing

image of young man with fingers in ears whilst arguing with woman

Arguing with someone is a skill in itself and if you want to compete in an argument holding the gaze shows strength. If you look away when arguing with someone you have all but lost the argument. Obviously this depends on who you are arguing with but in general it is better to hold the gaze whilst you are making your point and also when you are listening to the other person. We have all come across the person who is great at arguing and making you feel small, you will notice that everyone who is like this try to stare you out. Stare back, it will surprise them, piss them off and put them off what they are trying to say. Staying silent and staring at someone who is trying to rile you is also an effective way to win an argument without saying a word.

Attracting someone

When you are trying to attract someone and show them you are interested you can talk and listen with your eyes. When a person you like is speaking use the whole face as your focal point. Look at their eyes, listen to what they are saying, smile in the appropriate places, raise your eyebrows in the appropriate places. If you feel you are staring at them move to their other features such as their lips, their cheeks, their nose and then back to their eyes. Smiling when listening to someone is a great way to show you are interested in them, obviously don't smile when they have just told you their pet died last night. You have to listen with your ears as well as listening with your eyes (yes I did mean listening with your eyes, you listen to someone's body language with your eyes).

Loving someone

My wife and I often share a prolonged gaze into each others eyes and it is a very special thing to just stare without talking. My wife's pupils will dilate and she can see my pupils dilating. It creates a strong bond between us. To make your pupils dilate even more you can try this: as you are staring at your partner imagine yourself going inside their body and your two souls making love. You are trying to touch their very soul. This will release adrenalin and make your pupils dilate even more.

Conclusion

You can see just how influential and how important eye contact is. It affects every area of our life and becoming a master, or at least knowing more about it, will definitely help your social skills.

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Links to references in this article
  1. Ishikawa Mitsuhiko, Itakura Shoji 2019 Physiological arousal predicts gaze following in infants Proc. R. Soc. B.28620182746 http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.2746[]
  2. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2006/01/05/helping-children-by-teaching-them-to-look-away/[]
  3. Kleinke, C. L. (1986). Gaze and eye contact: A research review. Psychological Bulletin, 100(1), 78–100. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.100.1.78 []
  4. The Levels of Eye Contact : Mark Manson https://markmanson.net/the-levels-of-eye-contact[]
  5. Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1 by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (Jun 1, 1975)  []

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About the author

Steven Aitchison

Steven Aitchison

Steven Aitchison is the author of The Belief Principle and an online trainer teaching personal development and online business.  He is also the creator of this blog which has been running since August 2006.