The eyes have it

Picture courtesy of Public Domain and user Petr Kratochvil

Picture courtesy of Public Domain and user Petr Kratochvil

During a first introduction, or when you desperately want to convince someone of your opinion, how long should you maintain eye contact? To answer those questions let’s dive into a little oculesics, the study of eye contact, to determine mood and personality. Turning to recent science, we’ll learn that mainstream advice about how to endear yourself to someone may, in fact, backfire.

Let’s begin with the need to influence or persuade someone. Is direct eye contact good or detrimental? In a paper published recently in Psychological Science, Julia Minson, psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and collaborator Frances Chen, psychologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, reported that their research using eye tracking technology proved that people will be more likely to accept your point of view if, when speaking, you look at them on an angle, or focus your eyes on the person’s mouth rather than look at their eyes.

Two different research studies were done, but each supported the findings of the other: When a person is trying to convince someone of a position, or influence them, unless a trusted relationship already exists, extended direct eye contact triggers a primal avoidance response to domination. This causes the other person to, instead, become resistant to what you are saying.

The same phenomenon seems to be true for introductions. While brief but direct eye contact sends an unconscious signal to a person that you respect them (or are confident of yourself in the situation), holding eye contact for longer than is comfortable for western society can make the other person feel threatened or held in contempt.

How long is someone comfortable being stared at? A recent study conducted at the University of Central Missouri indicates that it depends on whether the person addressing the subject is smiling or not. If one is conversing with someone who is smiling and displaying a positive affect on their face, the length of time a person will willingly maintain eye contact without looking away is 1.76 seconds. At that point, on average, people will divert their eyes to your mouth or away from your face altogether. Meet their eyes without a smile, and they will look away in .84 seconds.

So forget directives to maintain eye contact until someone looks away. Here’s what you should be doing.

Introductions: When you meet someone or shake hands, look into their eyes approximately 3-5 seconds and then look to their mouth. That’s long enough to boost your charismatic influence without unconsciously tickling their “prey” response. If good will exists between you, they will be comfortable with up to 7-10 seconds. Forget all the “business advice” to stare someone down. Look away and then back to the eyes — that’s a more normal engage-release-engage exchange.

Conversation: Your eyes, in many ways, are a mirror to your soul. If you are not actively listening and letting a person “in”, your eyes will reflect it with a nonexistent or flat gaze. Look at the speaker and use your facial expression to respond. And remember that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.

Best Practices: Smile. Bill Clinton is often cited as the most influential and charismatic man in America because of the response he gets from face-to-face meetings. The personality is his, but the behaviors can be replicated. He smiles the entire duration of an introduction. He also is comfortable maintaining facial eye contact – his eyes will flit to the mouth, eyebrows, and then back to the eyes rather than away or downward, signaling his interest in the conversation. Videos of him greeting people reveal he doesn’t make the cardinal mistake of looking at others in the room when engaged in conversation, either. Then he will look downward, but not away to another target.

In the end, it’s certainly important to use your eyes to signal that you are truly “present” during an introduction or conversation, but it could be even better to be “presidential”!

What’s been your experience? Have you had success using the methods mentioned above? Do you still think it’s better to stare someone down? Leave your comments below or reach out to us on Twitter of Facebook.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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One Response to The eyes have it

  1. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) January 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    It’s interesting you say to maintain eye contact for 3-5 seconds when meeting people. When presenting to a group, much the same applies, and this 3-minute video shows a great, natural way to do it.

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