There are few interactions more powerful than meeting another person’s gaze. Making eye contact is an essential component of all forms of communication—be it romantic, platonic, or professional. Based on our research, there are many reasons why improving eye contact will inherently refine a person’s communication skills and confidence, thereby enhancing their quality of life more broadly.
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that eye contact is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. While making eye contact is a natural instinct for many people, for others, it doesn’t come quite as easily—and that is OK. The good news is, there are several strategies to overcome eye contact anxiety, which we will dive into below.
Eye contact has long been a fundamental component of human communication, and it is strongly rooted in our DNA. Even cavemen communicated through eye contact. In fact, it was considered the primary mode of transmitting messages at the time.
In order to appreciate the true value of eye contact, it’s important to recognize how central it is to our growth throughout our lives—including as infants. Humans are the only primates whose irises are against a sclera (the white part of the eye), and the colour contrast makes human eyes very alluring. That’s why babies are drawn to their caregivers’ eyes from early on.
Eye contact is extremely important to a baby’s development—socially, emotionally, and mentally. A 2002 study found that young children are significantly more inclined to follow an adult’s eyes rather than their head movements, and researchers at the University of Cambridge found that making eye contact with infants allows the onlookers' brainwaves to synchronize with the baby’s.
It’s no wonder, then, that eye contact remains a fundamental part of communication throughout life, and directly impacts the quality of a person’s relationships.
As far as romantic relationships go, making eye contact breeds a sense of closeness and deep connection by promoting trust, intimacy and chemistry. There’s scientific evidence to prove it.
Eye contact can trigger the release of dopamine in your body, a type of neurotransmitter which influences the way in which we feel pleasure, and it directly impacts our overall mental health. Not only does eye contact deepen the connection between two people, but studies show that eye contact can also elicit arousal.
Plus, locking eyes with someone can trigger oxytocin production in the body, a hormone which inherently makes humans feel closer. Therefore, returning a love interest’s gaze can reinforce that you are in sync and communicating with one another without needing to use words. The notion that the eyes are the window to the soul has a lot of truth to it, after all, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships. Eyes can indicate attraction, engagement, emotional support and love—all critical components in a healthy relationship dynamic.
It’s worth noting that eye contact isn’t welcome in all cultures, though. In Japanese culture, for instance, eye contact actually has a negative connotation and signals aggression. Rather than being a sign of respect, eye contact indicates a sense of intrusiveness.
Generally speaking, in the case of platonic friendships, eye contact is important, too, particularly at the onset of a new relationship. Locking eyes with a prospective friend can be a very important tool to build a bond with someone, as it instantly reinforces a sense of trust and connection.
Studies show that eye contact stimulates the limbic mirror system, which is the part of the brain that elicits emotional responses. Locking eyes with another individual can trigger an emotional connection, and it also indicates to the person on the receiving end that they are being heard, understood, and validated. As mentioned above, eye contact is a way of communicating without words, and sometimes, the emotion that the eyes evoke can be stronger and clearer than speaking.
Naturally, given its importance for solid communication, eye contact is also a critical tool in the professional realm.
In a job interview, non-verbal forms of communication (such as eye contact and smiling) plays just as much of a role in conveying a candidate’s attributes as verbal discussion. Strong eye contact elicits a sense of confidence and a keen interest in the conversation in question.
On the flip side, a candidate who is unable to lock eyes with their interviewer might appear distracted or disinterested in the subject matter.
The same theory can be applied to workplace discussions and presentations. Whether you’re the speaker or the listener, maintaining good eye contact at work projects a sense of conviction and confidence, and will directly enhance communication skills and professional relationships.
Not only will strong eye contact bolster confidence, but it also gives off a sense of authority on a given subject and/or a sense of empathy. The eyes clearly communicate how a person feels, sometimes to a stronger extent than words can.
Of course, there is such a thing as making too much eye contact, as it can quickly evolve into staring—which should be avoided, since it understandably tends to make people feel uncomfortable. Good eye contact takes practice. Here are some useful tips to master it:
1. Pick a spot: If you are talking to someone one-on-one, pick a spot directly between their eyes and focus on that area rather than hopping between each eye.
2. Establish eye contact immediately: It’s much harder to start making eye contact partway through a conversation. Instead, the moment you start speaking to someone, you should engage with their eyes.
3. Five-second rule: Make an effort to hold a person’s gaze for roughly five seconds at a time before you allow your gaze to shift. Break eye contact at a natural point in the conversation, then resume looking at them.
4. Go slow: If you have a hard time focusing on someone’s eyes, make sure to move your gaze elsewhere slowly. Otherwise, it will look as though your eyes are darting, making you appear distracted and disinterested in the person with whom you are speaking.
5. Inject gestures: To break up a conversation and add some natural eye contact pauses, try throwing in a few gestures, such as a nod or hand movement.
6. Try the triangle technique: If looking directly into someone’s eyes is difficult or uncomfortable for you, picture an inverted triangle on their face, connecting the eyes and the mouth. Every few seconds, move your eyes to a different point on the triangle. Since your eyes will remain in a general vicinity, the person you are talking to will likely not realize you aren’t looking directly into their eyes.
There are a number of ways to practice eye contact. Like most things, the more experience you have doing it, the more naturally it will come to you.
Try having a fun staring contest with a friend in order to get comfortable looking into someone’s eyes for an extended period of time. You can also practice alone by looking at your own eyes in the mirror and trying to hold your gaze.
Clearly, based on the ample communication benefits, eye contact is a skill worth honing, as it can truly benefit your professional and personal life. Generally, eye contact is an important part of being human and interacting with others, and fortunately, it’s something that can be improved upon. Remember, practice makes perfect!