Eye Contact: How Important Is It?

  • BY Lainie Petersen

eye contact
Forbes.com writer Susan Adams recently reported on an interesting study: Two researchers decided to test the oft-repeated maxim that if you want to persuade someone of something, look them in the eye and maintain eye contact.

Interestingly, the study indicated that too much eye contact can be a bad thing when trying to persuade others of something: Students who participated in the study responded better to videos of speakers when the students stared at the speakers’ mouths rather than their eyes.

The researchers believe that the study results may indicate a “primal” reaction to being stared at: In the wild, animals may stare down prey before attacking.

(In fact, some animals will respond to eye contact by attacking first. This actually happened at a zoo in Rotterdam where a gorilla attacked a female visitor because she was staring at him too much. The zoo now distributes special eyewear with sideways-gazing eyes printed on their fronts. This tricks the gorillas into thinking that visitors are looking in another direction, ensuring that zoo guests can view the primates without causing upset.)

In human terms, it may be that conversation partners subconsciously associate the steady gaze with aggression. In response, your conversation partner may become defensive.

Of course, some commenters on the article questioned the validity of the research, noting (as did Adams) that videos are different than in-person communications. Others pointed out that many people in many Western cultures associate eye contact with honesty, although some cultures regard eye contact as “intimate,” which means that it should be limited in casual or business transactions.

Perhaps the best advice to come from both Adams’ post and the comments was this: When conversing with others, it’s important that your gaze be natural. People may find a prolonged, unflinching gaze unnerving.

Move your gaze around naturally . . . work to maintain eye contact, but don’t be afraid to let your eyes wander a bit during conversation. Smile and be responsive to your conversation partner’s body language. Showing respect for cultural mores, as well as another person’s boundaries, is your best strategy for successful persuasion and negotiation.