I hate making eye contact.
There, now that thats out of the way, Id like to talk about ways to get around this absolutely critical part of non-verbal communication.
Its said that non-verbal communication such as eye contact, body language, and facial expressions pave the way for conversation to take place. In other words, before a word is spoken, there is a whole lot of non-verbal communication going on below the surface. Most of us dont even think about it.
In fact, the actual spoken word ranks below body language and tone of voice in importance.
Why is eye contact so important? Well, thats just the way society functions. If you make eye contact with someone, you are perceived as being friendly, confident, trustworthy, and honest. Most people expect, and react positively to, direct eye contact. If you refuse to make eye contact, they will think you have something to hide or that you are being intentionally unfriendly. This will derail most conversations unless the other person is extremely confident.
Again, if I had my way, Id prefer not to lock eyes with someone – it just sends my anxiety through the roof.
I discovered a while back that this is one instance where you cant fight city hall. People that I talk to have no way of understanding social anxiety the way I do. They dont care that I find it extremely difficult to make eye contact – and, as such, they wont provide me with special treatment.
So that leaves 2 choices: Conform to societys rules, or fall back and get out of everyones way. Obviously, Im not about to quit. I simply treat this problem as I would any other. My motivation is that I cannot continue to make progress until I get a handle on this.
If you are reading this blog, Id be willing to bet you also have a problem establishing and maintaining eye contact. Heres how I deal with it:
Try to remain calm
Yes, easier said than done, but if people pick up on your anxiety, they will start feeling uncomfortable. The conversation could be over before it starts. Try breathing exercises such as taking deep, controlled breaths. You can do this undetected.
Always smile when making eye contact
When I am anxious, the last thing I want to think about is smiling. However, if you attempt direct eye contact with someone and you dont smile, it will almost always make your glance look hostile. By not smiling, you will likely get a much colder reception and that will only add to the anxiety youre already feeling. A friendly smile will put the other person at ease and allow them to open up. Dont overdo it – a friendly, closed mouthed, smile is ok. Practice this and make sure youre not unintentionally putting people off.
Eye contact need not be direct or prolonged
If you are unable to maintain eye contact, it is ok to use short glances and break away frequently. The main thing is that you dont break off eye contact all together.
Start by staring into their pupils for a second, and then allow your gaze to travel to other parts of their face (between the eyes, the nose, and the forehead). Make sure to alternate this with quick glances back to the eyes. One of the best places to rest your gaze is on their eyebrows. Because of the close proximity, you still give the impression that you are looking into their eyes, even though you are an inch high. After you get comfortable with this, you can switch your gaze from pupil to pupil as you listen to them speak.
Never look around the room when someone is talking
You should always try to maintain eye contact when the other person is talking and you are listening. Averting their gaze (for whatever reason) suggests that they do not have your full attention, and that you are not interested in what they have to say.
Dont dive into the deep end of the pool. Practice your technique on friends and family first. The last thing you want to do is to practice making eye contact with extremely outgoing people or in high anxiety social situations (well, like I would anyway). Once you become familiar with that, try initiating a conversation (and eye contact) with your hairdresser, waiter/waitress, checkout person, and sales clerk. These people are low risk because there is a business relationship there. They get paid to talk to customers even if theyre not sincere.
This is a sure conversation killer. Avoid prolonged staring as this will make the other person feel threatened and unsure of themselves. We all have insecurities and no one reacts positively to a prolonged stare.
Practice, practice, practice
Like most things in life, your eye contact skills will improve with experience. Mine have improved a great deal in the past year. The secret is to keep upping the ante. Dont get too comfortable.