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Monday, August 20, 2012

Nonverbal Communication: The Importance of Eye Contact | Dr. G. Jack Brown, The Language Lab Blog

I think most of us have learned that making eye contact with a person you're talking with--or want to talk with--is important. It strengthens the connection between the participants.

But this article (by a physician who's apparently an expert in body language) provides some useful insights about making eye contact. Brown writes, for example:
When it comes to body language, people often ask, “Does good eye contact mean I have to look the other person directly in the eye all the time?” (or some variation of it). The short answer is definitely “NO.” Here’s the long answer: If you stare directly into one eye of a person- or switch back and forth between her/his eyes, it quickly becomes too psychologically intense. It is almost always interpreted (depending on the other signals and the context) as predatory behavior, anger, sexual attraction or deception.
He defines "healthy" eye contact:
looking semi-randomly in an area whose borders surround the eyes by about two centimeters. This would be between 30 and 70 percent of the time.
Not being very familiar with the metric system, I'm not sure how large an area is 2 centimeters. But Brown writes that staring at the forehead can be intimidating, and staring at the mouth can signal sexual interest. I need to consider this advice for myself. Not for sexual interest (consciously anyway), I think I often look at a speaker's mouth, as well as eyes; after all, that's where the words are coming from!

Here's some other advice that caught my attention, that I need to consider for my conversations (emphasis added):
Generally the speaker has a natural decrease of this “eye contact” – closer to 30 percent; the listener, on the other hand, experiences an eye contact crescendo – closer to 70 percent, most of the time. If we want to build and engender rapport, we need to be aware of and avoid this tendency to decrease eye contact when our role changes to speaker.
Since my wife and I are traveling more, we also need to consider Brown's advice about making eye contact in other cultures (though it's not new advice for me):
Although an example of an exception, in certain cultures a lack of eye contact is considered a sign of respect. Yet in many countries, very little or no eye contact during an encounter, is a signal of extreme disrespect. Sometimes, it is an effort to avoid an escalation of negative emotions.
Brown also writes about making eye contact when shaking hands and smiling.

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