Of all the bad advice I encounter in my work -never turn your back to the audience, move around a lot when speaking, always be friendly- the advice to always maintain eye contact has to be the worst.
We have very deeply held beliefs -especially here in the States- about the role of eye contact. We’ve been taught that eye contact equals respect, and that avoiding eye contact is tantamount to disrespecting the person you are engaging with.
This is bad advice and can really get us into trouble.
Eye contact does equal respect when you are in relationship. But there are times -delivering negative information for example- when we want to separate the relationship from the message.
There are three things to remember about the use of eye contact.
1. Go visual with information, especially if it is negative.
You must have the negative information on some sort of visual if you hope to have the person receive it and not attach the negative message to you. If you are working one-on-one, the visual will be small -a piece of paper, report, fax, or memo- if you are delivering negative information to a group the visual will be larger -a PowerPoint presentation, flip chart, or white board. Those in the medical field will also want to adhere to this rule. Although medical personnel almost always have an x-ray, lab report, or diagram handy they rarely use them effectively. A doctor often looks at a patient when saying, “You have cancer.” By looking at the person while delivering this information what he or she is really saying is, “You are cancer.” When the doctor uses direct eye contact the patient has a more difficult time absorbing the information. The patient may -understandably- become upset, volatile, or breakdown. This can be avoided using the next step.
2. Avoid eye contact if the information is negative. Use eye contact if the information is positive.
If a doctor -instead of looking at the patient- looks at the x-ray and says, “The x-ray shows that cancer is present,” the patient is more apt to breathe, take the information in and assimilate it without becoming as upset. The doctor can then turn to the patient and with eye contact say, “Now here is what we’re going to do.” By using eye contact in a systematic way the doctor nonverbally separates the problem (x-ray) from the solution (doctor and patient working together.) This works in the business world as well. When you have to lay people off or tell a group that there is a salary freeze, look at the information (which should be displayed visually) not the person/group.
3. People follow your eyes, not your hands.
These skills are only effective if you understand that people follow your eyes, not your hands. Oftentimes we point to a visual but maintain eye contact with the listener. This is ineffective. Think about it: when you’re sitting having coffee across from someone and they look over your shoulder and towards the door, what do you do? You also turn and look. We’re programmed to follow someone’s eyes, and rarely look where someone is pointing unless they are also looking there. When using a visual to give sensitive or difficult information be sure to look at the visual as well as point to it. This will cause the listener to look where you want them to look.
Nonverbal intelligence is all about having more than one approach. Sometimes we’ll want to maintain eye contact (when the information is positive) and other times we’ll want to look at something else (when the information is negative.) Train yourself to be systematic with your eye contact and you’ll have an easier time separating yourself from the message.