Let’s face it, engaging in prolonged eye contact is awkward. It’s especially awkward while focused on introducing yourself properly, remembering the person’s name, and presenting yourself as the witty, interesting, successful person you know you are.
Eye contact was one of my weakest attributes when I started networking. My mentors and coaches would say, “Try to maintain eye contact”, as if it was completely natural to gaze into a stranger’s eyes while he explains why interest rates are rising faster than expected. Apparently, there are a few key indicators that predict rising interest rates, but I wouldn’t know because my brain was too busy repeating “look at his eyes, look at his eyes” on loop.
Eye contact is one of the most essential yet elusive skills every great networker needs, but if you’re like me, learning to maintain eye contact during a conversation can seem like an insurmountable task.
As with any daunting task you wish to overcome, start by breaking it down to its simplest parts and rebuilding. For instance, before practicing both forms of eye contact in live situations, choose to improve either eye contact while listening or eye contact while speaking. Then, begin practicing with a comfortable sparring partner. Your eye contact sparring partner could be a sibling, coworker, or close friend.
A spouse also works as a sparring partner, though be careful. I began my eye contact improvement process four years ago using my wife as my sparring partner, and we now have a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old. Eye contact sometimes has a power beyond our control.
(Before working on eye contact, I wanted to make sure you warmed-up with a good eye roll!)
Now, while you’re sparring with your partner, work on active listening. Ask follow-up questions with eyes locked on your partner, then take breaks during your partner’s response. Continue this pattern, focusing on reducing the duration of eye contact breaks between your partner’s responses.
Then, repeat this process when asked a question. Focus on maintaining eye contact while you answer questions, and take breaks between your responses as needed. Again, focus on reducing the duration of breaks between your responses over time.
As you get more comfortable looking into your partner’s eyes while talking, you may quickly notice a small phenomenon.
Eye contact is not that difficult to maintain with someone after a while, but it can quickly creep people out if left uninterrupted.
Don’t worry. Here’s my secret to eye focus relief and creep reduction:
Laughter, thoughts, and notes are all wild cards. If someone says something funny, use your laughter as a natural focus reliever. If at any point you have to stop and think, use that opportunity to look away for a moment to organize your thoughts. Lastly, taking notes in a more formal setting will allow you to rest and recharge for your next gazing session.
Ok, you’ve practiced eye contact with a comfortable partner for a little while, and disengaged occasionally to chuckle, jot down a note, or absorb some information. You’re ready for the big leagues! But before you walk to the plate, here are a couple awkward curve balls to watch for.
1.) Fatal Distraction
Have you ever noticed we spend most of our day doing everything we can to avoid people? Head down, eyes low, headphones in.
Yet, as soon as we sit down for a lunch in a public setting with people worthy of our attention, we scan the room every time another person talks, sneezes, stretches, or just walks by. Whether they acknowledge it or not, the people at your table notice your wandering eyes and are likely very annoyed by it.
Avoiding eye contact while you are speaking to someone sends signals of discomfort; avoiding eye contact while someone is speaking to you sends signals of disinterest and disrespect.
To combat this twitch, I have a simple reminder I tell myself:
“Anyone not at this table is a stranger! I didn’t care about them walking into this meeting. I don’t care about them now.”
If people take the time to meet with you, award them the equal courtesy of your undivided attention.
2.) Unrequited Eye Contact
You’re an eye-focusing pro now, and proud of it! But what happens when you’re conversing with someone so averse to eye contact that after 20 minutes you still don’t know the person’s eye color? Sometimes the most nervous people will outright shut their eyes or rub them repeatedly to avoid dreaded eye contact.
Don’t let their discomfort undermine your eye contact prowess. You worked hard to get to this level of personal interaction, so don’t let off the gas. Now’s the time to use eye contact to your advantage.
Shift your chest and shoulders squarely toward the person, assess the situation, and ask yourself:
Are you in a position of power, but want to be relatable?
If so, relax your expression and allow the person to feel more comfortable making eye contact with you. Frequent nods and encouraging smiles go a long way. Remember, your goal in networking (and life) is to make people feel comfortable talking to you, not intimidated or nervous.
Are you both peers and on equal levels?
If so, maintain eye contact and active listening to keep the conversation flowing. The last thing you want to do right now is allow this person’s poor communication to influence your strong interpersonal habits. In fact, your steady eye contact may actually encourage these individuals to improve their body language over time.
Are you in a place of inferiority, but want the person to know that you’re a future CEO?
Time to shine! Look each of their words into your eyes and each of your words into theirs. Let this person know how strong a communicator and networker you are. And when they inevitably tell you how impressed they are with your confident disposition, of course, refer them to Awkward Networker!
Give these tips a try. Then look me in the eyes and tell me if they worked for you.