July 11, 2014
Keep three factors in mind regarding eye contact in a business setting: Culture, whether the situation is a monologue or dialogue, and the nature of the conversation.
Eyelids are a barrier, and using that barrier to restrict eye contact can be perceived in different ways depending on the culture. In the United States, the practice is often “eyelids up.” You want to make eye contact while meeting someone, listening to a person, and saying “good bye.” It supports your ability to forge a relationship. That guidance holds true for Western nations in general, but if you are in a foreign land, observe how the natives behave rather than making any assumptions.
In Middle Eastern countries, men tend to lock eyes with each other as a way of conveying, “I mean what I say, and what I say is the truth.” Inter-gender eye contact is not the same. In fact, if you are a woman doing business with a man from the Middle East, try to ascertain how much contact he has had with Western practices. Use the barrier of your eyelids to put psychological distance between you and the individual; it’s often seen as respectful.
In many other countries, eyelids are a tool of maintaining a polite and confident demeanor. Make eye contact periodically, such as when meeting a person, making or listening to an important point, and saying “good bye.” Check local practices through observation and by asking colleagues in the field.
Monologue or Dialogue
If you are giving a presentation, look at your audience—as individuals. Even if you are addressing an audience of thousands, pick a spot in the audience and direct your eyes to it. Deliver your insight or instruction, and then move to another spot and make eye contact. You want to convey a sense of focus and interest in each member of your audience, so having your eyes dart around the room will not help you do that. Neither will reading your notes and making no attempt to connect visually. Both eye-contact errors will probably cause you to lose your audience.
If you are engaged in a dialogue, follow the cultural guidance above, as well as the guidance in the next section.
Nature of the Conversation
As a business professional, one of the most important skills you can ever cultivate is active listening. That means you listen with your entire body, from eyes to toes. Since we’re just focused on eyes here, an important element of active listening is looking at the person talking. Never “leave” a conversation by checking for text messages, or even for a split second glancing at your laptop to see if a new email has come in. Never look out the window at the gray squirrel running through the parking lot while someone is talking to you. Never.
Now switch your point of view. You are the one talking, and the other person is listening. You ask a question and the person’s eyes drift off to the left or right. What do you make of that? This is a normal way that people respond when they are processing information. There is nothing inattentive or rude about it. When the person arrives at an answer or has a comment, he or she will likely make eye contact with you again.
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