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The uncomfortable truth about eye contact

A picture of a protester looking directly into the eyes of a counter-protester made waves on the internet last month. It's a powerful image that conveys so much. When interviewed, Samantha Francine said her father taught her, "no matter who or what the threat is, make sure you look them in the eyes, so they know that you're human.”

Her father's advice is sound. Research shows that making and holding eye contact builds trust by releasing oxytocin in the brain. Indeed, we are hardwired to recognize our shared humanity by looking into each other's eyes.

I noticed this phenomenon when becoming a mom. My daughter was always searching our eyes as a baby. I was often drawn in by her penetrating gaze and could easily get lost when our eyes were locked, which happened often.

I observed that started to change when she was about 18 months old. Instead of looking me directly in the eye, she started to avoid eye contact. I was aghast and wondered, what's going on?

I began to pay attention to the times she avoided eye contact and noticed a pattern. She avoided eye contact whenever she did something wrong or we spoke sternly to her. I realized that my daughter went out of her way to NOT look me in the eye whenever she felt ashamed.

I decided to experiment by paying attention to the times I was in conversations where eye contact was made versus when it was avoided. I noticed, what were we talking about, how was I feeling, and what I was sensing from the other person. 

It turned out that I generally felt better after conversations when maintaining good eye contact. This was true even when having difficult conversations about hard or sensitive topics. But making and holding eye contact took more effort when having hard conversations. When I experienced feelings of shame or anger, I had a tendency to avoid eye contact by adverting my gaze.  

Why? Because in those instances, making eye contact felt extremely vulnerable! And while I'm often quite open about my personal experiences and struggles, I am incredibly uncomfortable whenever I feel vulnerable. I don't like feeling vulnerable because I had a habit of telling myself a story that I'm powerless when I feel vulnerable.

As we find ourselves having to navigate more and more difficult conversations about sensitive topics with people we may not agree with, it is important to be intentional about making eye contact. Making eye contact helps us to connect; it serves as a powerful reminder that we are all indeed human. Regardless of our other differences, we do best when we recognize and honor our shared humanity.

Mindfulness and intentional eye contact feels especially important given our more limited in-person interactions these days as well as the presence of masks which hide much of our facial expressions. Even when we are communicating via video chat we can choose to look directly in the camera to build trust when communicating about an important or sensitive topic. After all, if eye contact builds trust, the lack of eye contact leads to distrust, which fuels fear and disconnection. 

I encourage you to pay attention to when and how eye contact is made in your conversations.

What's happening when you make eye contact? How are you feeling when you make eye contact? What about when you're avoiding eye contact? What if, especially when you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, you make a point to look someone you're speaking within the eye?

At a time when so many of our go-to communication practices are being disrupted, there is a huge opportunity for leaders to level up and improve their skills and along with it their collective success. Intentionally making eye contact is one simple way to improve the quality of your conversations!

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