In business, it’s important to connect to others in the organization for mutual trust and cooperation to take place. And people usually assume they’re liked if you make eye contact. Eye contact is a rapport-building gesture that boosts dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. The eyes are an important part of nonverbal communication. Don’t stare. Too much eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable. But more is better than not enough, and there seems to be too little eye contact these days.
In one study, researchers found that if you can spend only 30% of your speaking time making eye contact, it results in a significant increase in how much participants remember. Researchers also found that movement such as hand gestures or a turn of the head makes the speaker more noticeable and memorable. And any eye contact from a boss makes employees feel favored.
Research has also shown that eye contact activates the limbic mirror system. And the good news is that everyone can empathize with people unless there is some malfunction in his or her brain. Everyone has mirror neurons, those specialized neurons among the 86 billion or so neurons in our brain. Our mirror neurons fire regardless of whether we or someone else is performing a specific action. This enables us to relate to the person to the degree that we even have a fair idea of why they are performing that action. For example, when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, a specific mirror neuron fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. And when you watch a friend pick up her own cup of coffee, the same neuron also fires as if you were also picking up her cup of coffee, even though your hand is not moving at all.
This empathy with others includes emotions. For example, when someone observes another person crying, mirror neurons respond by eliciting the feeling of sadness. And if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving, and or feel uncomfortable when a co-worker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells.
Avoiding eye contact altogether is not a good idea, especially if you are a manager or leader and want to gain the confidence and trust of your team. Leaders control the flow of conversation with their gaze and use it to open and close communication. Eye contact has been shown to increase the likelihood that people will remember what you say. An added advantage of eye contact is that it helps keep the listener honest. It’s much harder to lie when someone is maintaining eye contact while asking a question. And it’s right up there with smiling when it comes to making a favorable impression on someone you may be meeting for the first time.
If you are addressing larger groups, it is essential that you include everyone, looking them in the eye one at a time if possible. For one thing, it helps you focus on what you are telling them. It also keeps them involved in what you are saying and makes it simulate a two-way conversation. You can frequently tell by their expressions and demeanor whether they are confused, uninterested, eager to hear more, or whatever. You can then pause, introduce humor, change your pace, expand on something you just said, or call for a coffee break.
Eye contact can improve understanding, thereby improving communication. I recommend that you make eye contact at least 50% of the time when carrying on a conversation. You might hold your gaze for 3 or 4 seconds at a time before moving it away in a horizontal rather than sideways direction.
There’s more to communication than meets the eye; but meeting the eye is important as well.