Eye Contact Won’t Help You Here

New research indicates that eye contact won’t increase your negotiation prowess, surprisingly:

According to the researchers, this may be because eye contact—long associated with romantic spaghetti dinners and intense spiritual communion—is actually really intimidating and scary. Or at least, in situations where people expect conflict, it comes across as a power play rather than an olive branch. Primates and dogs stare their opponents down when they want to assert dominance. If a listener disagrees with a speaker, she is probably already in a combative frame of mind, more defensive than receptive, quick to interpret a steady gaze as a thrown gauntlet

Via Slate.com


11 thoughts on “Eye Contact Won’t Help You Here”

  1. I think the rule of the Golden Mean applies in this situation. Of course, you don’t want to stare into someone’s soul when you are communicating with them. But, at the same time, you don’t want to avoid their eye contact. Avoiding eye contact can be signs of lying or disinterest. I think it’s reasonable to make some eye contact to show that you are engaged and interested in the speaker (or audience) but keep some distance so that you aren’t, as the article says, vacuuming out their soul.

    We also shouldn’t forget about the importance of other nonverbal cues (posture, hand gesturing, fidgeting or ticks). Considering eye contact in context of other body language is always prudent. The message you send to others is a package deal that includes everything, verbal and nonverbal. With that being said, even professing your love for someone can be negative if you are staring them down in the process.

  2. I agree, I often feel uncomfortable with the kind of eye contact that is clearly too intense and unnecessary. I think that for a long time people have heard that maintaining steady eye contact in conversations is important if you want the other person to think that you’re taking them seriously, as well as in other cases mentioned in the article. While eye contact is important, if a certain line is crossed it turns into creepy staring, and it feels unnatural for all parties involved. Chances are the person being stared down is not going to take that as a sign that they’re being taken seriously, but probably just as a sign of weirdness, intimidation, and of “get me outta here, please!”
    I think that confidence can stem from many other kinds of body language, personality traits, social skills, tone of voice, years of practice, etc.

  3. This article makes some sense. I could envision myself reacting in the ways described by the study in the article. It’s predictable that you are more likely to make eye contact with people you agree with, and that eliminating eye contact as a source of conflict and allowing a speaker’s argument more weight in the communication process has an effect on how well the message is received. Also, it would appear that this study deals mainly with the reactions of listeners rather than speakers, so from a speaker’s perspective it is still advantageous to seek or maintain eye contact. Not doing so produces effects on the listener such as Simon has described in his comment.

    With that said, though, this is one of probably many studies conducted on eye contact and other nonverbal communication. It is hard to know how comprehensively applicable it is or how much more relevant it is than the other studies. We should remain open to further research on these topics.

  4. I definitely agree with the first comment that the rule of the golden mean must be applied to the amount of eye contact one has with another person. However, I found it interesting that the article didn’t address cross-cultural differences in use of eye contact, probably a topic for another study. For my major, I have read a lot and even conducted my own study on politeness theory. Politeness differs from culture to culture, therefore if you are doing something that is considered polite in your culture towards a person whose culture has different ways of demonstrating politeness, your attempt at good manners can come off the opposite of what was intended. For those of us who aim to become negotiators in the global sector, it is very important to find that golden mean for the culture you will be interacting with. It’s not an easy task, but one which is necessary if you don’t want to cause unnecessary offence.

  5. I think eye contact is important when you are negotiating because it shows your interest in them. Obviously you don’t want to over do it and make them feel uncomfortable since you are trying to build a bond that would help you negotiate effectively. But completely avoiding eye contact is just as bad. If you don’t seem interested they won’t be interested in you. Eye contact is the first thing that connects you and through that connection you can begin to negotiate. Eye contact will help you here.

  6. First off, I feel like I’ve been lied to my whole life! But I did find it interesting because I totally agreed with this sentence, “Or at least, in situations where people expect conflict, it comes across as a power play rather than an olive branch.” When you think about all the times you’ve been required to make eye contact, it is usually when a person with more power is telling you something. Although I do appreciate the fact that people do need eye contact in order to make a connection, I think it should be less frequently than we’ve been previously instructed.

    I also find it interesting that eye contact can be bad for negotiating. Maybe we should send this article over to Congress so we can get this government shutdown done with!

  7. I think this study points to an obvious conclusion that wasn’t mentioned. Eye contact is indicative of confidence, so naturally those who make eye contact are less likely to be swayed by what the other person is saying. Those who are confident in their viewpoints will either make eye contact in agreement as their argument is strengthened, or make eye contact in a challenging manner in preparation to defend their point of view. Those who are on the fence will not only be more likely to shift their views, but because they are on the fence do not have the confidence to meet the eyes of someone solid in their own opinion.
    As mentioned in previous comments, I also agree that this is merely one of likely thousands of studies. Let’s not be too quick to change our methods.

  8. I think that Bill Clinton is the acknowledged master of eye contact. Everything I’ve read that talks about his charisma talks about how me makes you feel like the most important person in the room with his eyes. I remember reading about how there are different types of semi-confrontational body language, or semi-intimate body language, and by toning certain ones down you can dial others up. It’s not so much about boring into someone’s eyes as much as it’s about giving someone your full and undivided attention. If they can feel your full attention, whether it’s in negotiation or in normal social interaction, they will feel more important, you will seem more important in their eyes, and have more power in your negotiations that way. Watch this clip of Bush vs. Clinton. The difference between the two is staggering. Clinton looks right at the woman for the majority of the time he’s speaking, letting her know he’s speaking right to her concerns. I couldn’t help but be blown away by his sincerity, and this is more than a decade after the fact.

  9. This is surprising because we always feel a stronger connection with people when we have eye contact in our interactions with them, but I see how it can have a negative effect as well. My experience with job interviews has shown me that most interviewers search for eye contact, but they also don’t want you to intimidate them by holding eye contact for too long. It is important for all of us to learn when to make eye contact and also when to break it. Eye contact shouldn’t be something that makes people uncomfortable. There are many aspects that are necessary to be considered when making eye contact, it will depend on your position and the interviewer, so the most important thing to do is to learn to read people and see what makes them feel most comfortable.

  10. I disagree that eye contact should be avoided in public speaking. Of course, no one should be intently staring at one person in a way that would make them uncomfortable. But to erase it from a speech would hurt the ability of that person to really reach his or her audience. Eye contact conveys sincerity and a desire to persuade. The video in the link Adam posted above portrays this idea perfectly. While President Bush was walking around, looking at everyone, and not really giving his answer to the woman that asked the question, President Clinton spoke right to her and not to anyone else. I’m sure she believed that he really cared about her and her concerns, as opposed to President Bush- who I am sure she gained less favorable attitude toward due to his obvious lack of eye contact and concern.

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