How to Make Eye Contact Without Feeling Weird

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Human interaction is very nuanced and this can make it difficult to become adept at (even more so if you consider yourself introverted).

 

First, you have to say and do the right things the right way at the right time. 

 

But not only that- you then have to pay attention and react appropriately to whoever you’re conversing with. The problem is compounded with the glut of articles on some “magic pill” to help us better connect or- even worse- the cliche advice to “just do it.”

 

Trying to process all this information and implement all these tips at once ends up being more of a negative thing than something beneficial (multitasking is ineffective).

 

What is most beneficial?

 

There is no “one” key element to improved social encounters- there are many. The best approach is to determine and improve the few elements that have the biggest effect on the interaction (see Pareto’s principle).

 

The process doesn’t happen overnight. But focusing on one thing at a time will make you feel more accomplished and confident- that progress gives you something to build off.

 

This article is not a magic pill.

 

This article is a roadmap to beginning work on one of those key elements.

 

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Before we get into the meat of the importance of eye contact (and how to improve it), see if you can pick up on how lack of eye contact negatively impacted the following situation.

 


It was a tough week at work- but Pat survived! And, especially with the gloomy weather outside, he felt that he owed it to himself to take Saturday to unwind. He starts the day off working on his passion project and heads to the local cafe.

 

Pat recites his normal order but doesn’t notice the barista’s gaze is focused instead on the impending storm outside. She asks him to repeat and, caught off guard, he stutters a little- though manages to blurt it all out.

 

He timidly hands her his credit card, and she counters with a request for ID to confirm his identity. After fumbling through his wallet for a couple seconds, he finds it and successfully pays for his order. He finally gets his beverage and makes his way over to an open chair. Taking his seat, he notices a cute girl at the table opposite him.

 

“Hopefully the weather holds out so I can clean up my yard!” she remarks.

 

Still a bit flustered, Pat smiles, briefly glances at her and responds “Yeah that’d be nice” as he looks at his computer.

 

After slogging through his project for a couple hours, he gives up, heads home and ends up binge-watching Netflix for the rest of the day.


 

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Does that sound a little too real? I’ve been in similar predicaments on multiple occasions; it’s demotivating and embarrassing.

 

Though you don’t have to be in those situations… Is anybody really forcing you? No, and change is possible.

 

But it’s not easy- that’s obvious. Maybe you can sympathize with how these people felt about their struggle with eye contact:

 

It seems so unnatural. I can’t even look my family members in the eye.

 

Even with the people I’m closest to, I have a hard time making eye contact with them for longer than a few seconds at a time.

 

But does eye contact really have that much of an impact on conversation and social situations? The short answer is yes. And when you take a systematic approach, overcoming the challenge becomes far less daunting than you’d have imagined.

 

What’s the big deal?

 

How important is eye contact?

 

For one it allows you to better read others’ body language and facial expressions.

 

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Viewing the face of the person you’re speaking with allows you to notice the things they say without speaking. You pick up on changes in body position, facial expressions and their eye contact; in turn, you can be more conversationally dynamic.

 

If you read between the lines and decipher better what they mean by “listening” not just to their spoken thoughts but also to their unspoken ones, you can really connect with them and get much more out of the conversation.

 

This is huge.

 

You can be far more mindful of the current situation than you would have had you not been visually focused. That dynamism makes the conversation feel more natural. When it feels natural, you’ll feel comfortable- and what does comfort lead to?

 

Confidence.

 

Even if you don’t “feel” confident, there’s no doubt that you will give off that impression.

 

“But I’m not really confident. People will definitely pick up on that.”

 

At least that’s what I used to think. You’ve probably heard people toss around the stale saying “fake it till you make it.”

 

Such a God-awful saying.

 

It’s ridiculously overused and doesn’t make sense at face value. But… it’s true. It makes more sense when paired with this thought:

 

You are not you. You are who you are perceived to be.

 

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You can illustrate this by thinking of your different sets of close associates. The main ones that likely come to mind are your immediate family, good friends and coworkers. Do they all treat and converse with you the same way?

 

No, because they all have a different perception of who you are.

 

Your coworkers at a job you disliked might think of you as “that lazy guy.” Though once you found a job you enjoyed, your new colleagues thought you were a real “go-getter.”

 

Your parents will always have the perception of you as their baby in the back of their mind, while your friends know you as the buddy that always gives good advice.

 

Even “perceived” confidence leads to a number of positive results. Others will give much more credence to your words when they sense how confident you seem when speaking. People have higher trust in someone that seems confident in what they’re saying than someone who gives off an air of uncertainty.

 

Would you trust a salesman if he looked down the entire time he was talking to you? Probably not.

 

Now, improving your eye contact is not going to happen overnight.

 

It’s like when when I step into a swimming pool the first time of the year: it generally takes what seems like eternity. Oh, I could jump in- as everyone yells at me- but instead it’s one toe at a time.

 

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Then a foot.

 

Then up to the knees.

 

Once I’ve been waist-deep for a couple minutes, I’m so invested I’ll generally plunge the rest of my pale white body into the water (sorry for the visual).

 

Improving your eye contact will be the same way. Now, there are many superficial articles on the benefits of good eye contact. And granted, there is some good information; but what’s the point of good information if you don’t use it?!

 

Along that line of reasoning, I created a practical and effective exercise that will ensure significant improvement in your eye contact.

 

Again, this takes time. The absolute minimum amount of time this process should take is two weeks. After all, it’s better to take a few small steps forward and hold your ground than to take a giant leap and fall backwards.

 

What this process will do is gradually help you feel more comfortable with holding eye contact until you really start enjoying the benefits and it becomes habit.

 

The Staircase Approach

 

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*This method is designed in a two week format, but is just as effective if the time span is increased up to four times as long (any longer will run the risk of incompletion and disappointment).

If you do increase the length of time, be sure not to change the proportions. For instance, instead of “2 days, 3 days, 3 days, 4 days, 2 days” you may need to extend it to “4 days, 6 days, 6 days, 8 days, 4 days.” However, you shouldn’t double one specific exercise while keeping the others the original length.

It will feel uncomfortable at first. That means progress is inevitable!

Having a specific timeline to follow will push you through your comfort zone instead of leaving you stalled on one of the steps. The fact that you’ve read this far means you acknowledge you should change. If you’re really serious, you’ll begin this exercise today.*

 

Days 1-2: For the first two days, start off small. When you’re talking with your family and friends, practice looking at the top of their hair. Even if you normally look in their eyes, do just this for two days.

 

Unless they have hair like Marge Simpson, it’ll be just as if you’re looking at their eyes. You’ll also be looking in the general direction of their face. (Continue as normal with strangers)

 

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Days 3-5: Over the next three days, shift your attention to your family’s and friends’ eyes. Don’t think about the eye contact, think about the eye color. When you’re focusing on that, it’ll distract you from the uncomfortable, awkward feeling and allow you to become accustomed to having their eyes in your field of view.

 

If this seems a bit daunting at first, you could focus on the space between their eyes for the first day and transition to eye color for the next two days. When you speak with strangers, focus on the top of their hairline now.

 

Days 6-8: You should now be getting used to looking at people’s faces (“used to” is what we’re going for, not “comfortable”). Now you can start really noticing your friends’ and family’s facial expressions. In fact, that’s the next step: for the next three days start consciously paying attention to their facial expressions while speaking with them.

 

Try to pick up on what their body language is and react accordingly; you’ll be surprised how much it improves conversations.

 

In regards to strangers, start getting comfortable focusing on their eye color. Don’t worry if things feel fake right now- that’s only because you aren’t used to this yet. It will feel natural in time.

 

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Days 9-12: Now we’re getting to the meat of this exercise. When you’re with your family and friends, just maintain eye contact.

 

Continue noticing their expressions. However, when conversing, try to naturally hold their gaze for the sole purpose of good eye contact. If they look away, it’s okay. It’s natural, and a lot of people have difficulty with eye contact.

 

(When making eye contact, it’s difficult to gauge precisely how long to gaze- but research says that three seconds is the minimum. Hold the gaze until you have to think and when you look away, look to the side, not down. Looking down seems apprehensive or untrustworthy, while looking up makes you look uninterested. The side is always safe.)

 

When you converse with strangers, at this point you’ll want to start really noticing their facial expressions as you were with your family. You’ve been doing this for a while now with your family, so it should make it a little easier when trying with strangers.

 

You’re already waste deep in the water, so you might as well start taking a plunge!

 

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Days 13-14: By now, you should have noticed some significant changes in interaction with others and maybe even your mindset. It’s finally time to maintain direct eye contact with everyone– including and especially strangers.

 

After building a foundation of constant progress and shifting your paradigm, you should be just comfortable enough to start working on this. Two days of really focusing will make a true impact.

 

For the weeks immediately following the exercise, you should continue to focus on eye contact. With the foundation in place though, it will become natural in due course.

 

“What if I fail?”

 

Just pick up the exercise where you left off!

 

This person put it well when they reflected:

 

For me it is all about building my confidence back up again and mastering my emotions. If confidence can be lost then it can also be regained.

 

Start small, find things you do well and build on them, eventually expand it out to communicating well with others and engaging them with eye contact. Go easy on yourself, good things take time, celebrate the progress and get motivated by the setbacks.

 

Remember: you’re working on you. You’re worth the very temporary feeling of discomfort you’ll have while doing this.

 

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So what effect will this have on you?

 

Since you now put more effort into reading other people and really communicating with them, your existing relationships are going to greatly improve. People will notice your increased interest in them and will reciprocate.

 

Aside from improving your current relationships, you’ll find it much easier to create new ones as well; so, in turn, your social circle will also increase. Having better initial conversations and, by extension, leaving a better first impression, will increasingly influence people to gravitate towards you.

 

Probably the largest impact, though, is a notable increase in confidence, which will largely influence other important positive changes.

 

Having an increased perception of self (in the context of conversation) will help you to tune into others’ feelings and display true interest. The corresponding interest your peers show will bolster your self-image, gradually transforming the “perceived” confidence described earlier into true confidence.

 

This will translate into other social skills and allow you to push past your self-imposed comfort zone and open up more doors- be they relationships, business deals or more!

 

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I’m sure you’d agree these benefits outweigh the work. How could they be illustrated?

 

Remember our poor friend Pat from the beginning of the article? Let’s spy on him again- only this time, he’ll focus on holding eye contact.

 


It was a tough week at work- but Pat survived! And, especially with the gloomy weather outside, he felt that he owed it to himself to take Saturday to unwind. He starts the day off working on his passion project and heads to the local cafe.

 

Pat sees the barista’s gaze focused on the impending storm and comments “I heard the storm has a good chance of passing us buy!” Looking relieved, they exchange pleasantries briefly before she asks him his order.

 

After handing her his card, they talk for a little while longer until she hands him his beverage. He saunters over to an empty chair and, taking his seat, notices a cute girl at the table opposite him.

 

“Hopefully the weather holds out so I can clean up my yard!” she remarks.

 

Pat smiles, looks at her and responds “I agree- let’s hope it holds out!” Noticing she wants to talk, he asks about her house. She reveals that after buying the house only several months ago, she’s only just started to settle in and tidy up outside.

 

Casual conversation continues for some time before the girl starts packing up to leave.

 

 

“Oh and I forgot to ask your name…” Pat adds.

 

“Jamie! And you?” she asks.

 

“I’m Pat.”

 

She replies “It’s been nice talking with you, but I can tell you’re a bit busy. I’ve got to get going now, but I’ll be hanging out with some friends later this weekend. Hey- do you have any plans tomorrow?”


 

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The outcome of these contrasting situations are not the only things that were different, but they were certainly the most noticeable! You can really see how human interaction as a whole is complicated and that even small details can have large positive impacts.

 

Instead of being intimidated, though, you can learn the individual aspects of these social skills separately- and drastically improve over time. And now that you see how to lay the groundwork, all that’s needed is to learn the key elements until you’re comfortable with each.

 

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Why not make eye contact your first step?

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