Learning To Make More Eye Contact With People
It's pretty common for shy or socially awkward people to say they have trouble holding eye contact. Some typical reasons for this are:
- If someone is shy they may find it feels too intense and intimidating to look another person in the eye.
- Similarly, if someone is socially anxious, by not looking at their coversation partner's face they can "remove" one stream of social stimulation and make the interaction feel less-overwhelming.
- If you're not used to it, it takes effort to consciously try to look people in the eye while also speaking to or listening to them. It's a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. By not making eye contact you can take away that source of distraction and put more focus on composing your thoughts or thinking about what the other person is saying.
- For some people making little eye contact is simply a bad habit they've fallen into. Maybe their parents and teachers never taught them to look others in the eye when they were younger.
- Some people have a tendency to zone out and get lost in their heads when they're socializing. Not making consistent eye contact is an effect of that.
Pretty much everyone will tell you eye contact is an important aspect of communication. It makes you come across as more engaged, friendly, and confident. Also, it provides you with a lot of non-verbal information about what the other person is thinking and feeling. By looking away you miss all that. Another benefit is that making eye contact forces you to put some of your mental energy into focusing on other people, which means you have less left over to get stuck in your head and think insecure thoughts. Below are some tips on how to learn to get more comfortable with it:
You might be making more eye contact than you think
It's totally possible that if you're searching for help on how to make eye contact that you really do look away too much. If you've gotten comments that your eye contact is poor, then this is definitely the case. However, I'll put this point out there because sometimes people feel like they're not making enough eye contact, but they actually are. When they speak to someone they're generally looking in their direction and come across as attentive, but because they don't feel like they're constantly aware of looking other people directly in the eyes, they believe they're not doing it enough.
You can accomplish quite a bit without making ideal eye contact
All things being equal, making good eye contact is better than not doing it, but I'd hardly say it's a factor that will completely make or break your social success. If someone has many of other things going for them socially, the fact that they sometimes look away from their conversation partners isn't going to be a huge deal. If you wish your eye contact was better then by all means work on it, but don't agonize over it too much.
Try to get into the habit of making more eye contact gradually, not all at once
It can be tricky to make consistent eye contact with people when you're not used to it. As I mentioned, it can feel intimidating and mentally draining. What sometimes happens is someone will resolve to break their poor eye contact habit. They'll start looking people in the eyes consistently, and be able to keep it up for a week or two, through willpower and the novelty of working on something new. Then they'll slip back to their old ways.
It may be more helpful to slowly ramp up to making a solid amount of eye contact. It will take time before making eye contact becomes an automatic, effortless skill. Don't expect yourself to go from 0 to 100% overnight, and then never go back. It's the same as how someone who eats poorly usually can't just drop everything one day and switch to an ultra-healthy diet. The points below will go into more detail about some sub-skills you can work on.
Try using the TV as practice
You don't even have to start with real people. When you're watching TV try to make eye contact with all the characters on the screen the way you'd focus on someone in real life. News shows where the presenter looks and talks right to you tend to be the best. Discussion shows with multiple guests can also be useful because it can get you used to switching your attention from speaker to speaker. This can all give you a good approximation of what it's like to do it in real life. You can also study the various ways people use their eyes to communicate.
Give your eye contact muscles time to get into shape
When you make eye contact with someone you have to keep looking at a specific area. Not only does the lens in each eye have to focus on a point a certain distance away, but you also have to use your eye socket muscles to hold your eyes up. Your neck and overall posture also have to be in a position where you can look the other person in the eye. When you're not making proper eye contact you're often not doing any of these things. You're usually looking more down, or up and to the side, and your eyes may be unfocused as you're lost in your thoughts.
When you try to make regular eye contact with people all of the sudden, those little muscles may not be up to the task. You'll find your eyes get tired from having to actually focus on another person. This is one reason it can take a while to develop the habit. Again, practicing on the TV can help with this.
Try to work on the easier aspects of eye contact first
I think we all intuitively understand that some kinds of eye contact are easier than others:
- Looking someone right in the eyes is ideal, but if you look somewhere nearby, the other person won't be able to tell. You may find it a lot easier to look between their eyes, or slightly above them to start with.
- It's much easier to make eye contact when you're listening to someone vs. when you're the speaker. When you're listening you just have to sit back and focus on the other person. When you're speaking, a lot of your mental energy goes into thinking of what to say in the moment. That's why people generally don't make as much eye contact when they're talking. You could start by only trying to make eye contact when you're the listener, and then work on the speaking part later.
- It's easier to make eye contact for a short period of time vs. a during longer conversation. When you're learning you could start off by only trying to make eye contact for quick, throw away conversations with people like cashiers.
- It's easier to make eye contact with people who don't intimidate you. Like most people, you likely get more flustered looking an attractive or high-status person in the eye compared to chatting to your parents or friends. You could tell yourself that it's okay if you can't make eye contact with more imposing people right off the bat, and that you'll work on that later.
Now you may find it feels like a bit too much work to consciously plan when you'll make eye contact with people and when you won't. In practice you may just try to make as much eye contact as possible, not get down on yourself over the times you can't, and slowly get more used to it. However, if you find you have trouble acquiring the habit, taking a more systematic approach is always an option.