NLP, Eye Contact & Rapport
In NLP we recognise that ‘good eye contact’ is what the other person considers to be good eye contact! And that there is not a standard and universal style.
Let me give you an recent example…
It was both comical and sad.
The electrical goods salesman was trying so hard. He’d come through the one-size-fits-all school of communication skills in which he’d learned a few rules for how to create rapport with people.
And he was resolutely sticking to those rules.
He’d obviously learned that ‘good eye contact is important’ so he was using every trick in the book to get the customer to look him in the eye… asking her direct questions, pausing after she answered, mentioning her name and then pausing, and so on.
But the customer was having none of this!
She wasn’t into this eye contact thing at all and successfully countered all of the salesman’s efforts. She’d look at the product, out the window, at the ground, the ceiling, in fact anywhere except into the salesman’s eyes.
Me? I was hanging around waiting to be served and, because I train people in selling and influencing, I couldn’t resist surreptitiously observing the struggle. I only just managed to resist the temptation to take him by the elbow and say “Look, it’s not working. Try something different – like doing it her way, for a change!”
The Myth about ‘Good Eye Contact’
It’s amazing how many communication skills’ books and courses perpetuate the myth that there’s this thing Good Eye Contact which , for some reason or other, gazing fixedly into the other person’s eyes. Now, for a few people this will work well. However many people are likely to find it uncomfortable to the point where they begin to wonder if you are trying to hypnotise them or ask them for a date, or both.
So if you meet lots of people in your daily life it’s a good idea to think about how you make eye contact. It is, after all, one of the first things that people use to form an impression of you!
Some Eye Contact Styles
Spend some time observing people and you will soon recognise that there are many different eye contact styles of which the more common are:
(1) The Fixed Stare Style: their eyes never leave you and practically bore through you. Occasionally this style is used as a power trick to intimidate or to give the impression that the person is more confident than they really are. Much used by politicians who have been thoroughly coached in how to appear a lot more trustworthy than they often turn out to be!
(2) The Darting Glance Style: They do look at you – but with very brief glances. They tend to look at you only when your gaze is averted. This style can give the impression of either low self confidence or lack of trustworthiness so if it happens to be your natural style you may wish to remedy the situation rather than transmit such a non-verbal message.
(Rather than being related to their trustworthiness or their confidence this lack of eye contact is more likely to be due to their personal thinking style. Many people have developed the habit of having to look away, or even close their eyes momentarily, in order to think about what they are saying. In a later article we will look at this subject and at what the direction a person’s eyes move in tell you about the ideal communication style to use with them.)
(3) The No-Eye-Contact style: Their eyes rarely, if ever, meet yours. They use peripheral vision to watch you. This style is much favoured by country dwellers whose lifestyle has not included many opportunities for gazing into the eyes of other humans.
You may have noticed, while out in the open country, that there is a tendency to use somewhat less eye contact and to stand further from one another than would be the norm on a city street. As with the Darting Glance the style can be misinterpreted. However the No Eye Contact style is more likely to be a learned behaviour than an essential part of their thinking strategy.
(4) The Turn-And-Turn-About Style: This is the most common style. I look quite steadily at you while you are speaking. (Although, if you appear to find this uncomfortable, I look away occasionally to avoid creating tension). When it is my turn to speak you look at me steadily while I still meet your gaze but look away a little more (to think, gather my thoughts, check my feelings, etc.).
The NLP approach to inter-personal communication is to use a slightly different style with each person rather than use the one-size-fits-all approach. This is because treating each person as a unique individual is at the core of NLP and because Rapport in NLP is based on maximising the similarities between us and playing down the differences.
People are unconsciously signalling to us how they wish us to behave towards them. This is done non-verbally – through their body language. Match those parts of a person’s body language that they have least conscious awareness of and you are on your way to creating excellent rapport. (Although what you are doing is out of their conscious awareness it will still register with them at a subtle feeling level).
In creating Rapport matching does not mean mimicking – if only because to do so would alert the person, consciously, to what you are doing. Matching means adapting your own behaviour so it is somewhat similar to the other person’s. So you don’t do exactly the same as they do. Instead, you do enough to non-verbally signal that you are emphasising the similarities between you.
And which behaviours do you match? Eye contact is an excellent way to begin creating better rapport since few people have conscious awareness of their personal eye contact style. (Inidentally, another excellent way of creating rapport is to match how a person uses their voice – their voice speed, volume, tempo, and rhythm, for example).
Use Eye Contact to Improve Rapport
- If they use the fixed-stare: While speaking to them look at them for longer than you might otherwise do. But avoid getting into I-will-not-look-away-until-you-do competition. When you are doing the listening give them quite sustained eye contact. (If, at first, you find this a little uncomfortable you can ease your own tension by varying your expression and by using head nods and ‘Uh-huh’ sounds.)
- If they use Darting Glances: Giving them sustained eye contact will be perceived as aggressive or even intimidating. Adopt a somewhat similar style by looking away more than might be normal for you, especially when you are doing the speaking.
- If they use minimal eye contact: Make much less eye contact that you might normally do. Practising using peripheral vision to watch them. (Incidentally, it is quite likely that these people will also prefer to maintain a larger personal space zone so avoid moving too close to them.)
NLP & Rapport
Rapport, in NLP, is not just something that occurs as a result of people of people being in tune with one another. It is something that can be created – very quickly and easily – even with people we do not know, with whom we do not have common interests, and even with people with whom we disagree.
Matching a person’s eye contact style is one way of creating this rapport. And it is easy because they are already giving you a demo of how to do it! Simply observe them and then match their style.
NLP is a modelling process. It is based on what works. Whether or not they have been ‘scientifically validated’ we will use those behaviours which produce satisfactory results – and jettison the ones which don’t!
Matching non-verbal behaviour works.
Do it subtly. Initially it may feel a little strange – most new behaviours do – so simply use matching in the first three or four minutes of a conversation and then revert to your normal style.
Gradually, with practice, it will become more natural for you and soon you will discover that you are doing it without (consciously) having to think about it – you’ll have reached unconscious competence.
…how did that electrical goods salesman fare? He never did get ‘good eye contact’ with his customer. And I don’t think he got the sale, either. The customer said she’d think it over and left the store. Maybe she came back again. Maybe not. Me? I eventually got impatient and left the store, too. It wasn’t his day.
I received the following email from one subscriber (Just three hours after she received this newsletter!!).
Hello again Reg. Just to let you know that I’ve just starting using this method and its impact is immediate! But what do you do when there is more than one person? Try to incorporate both, or switch between them? Or neither?
My reply (on the latter point):
“When there’s more than one I tend to let the situation and my objectives dictate my style.
As a very general rule in meetings etc., I’ll pay most attention to the person with whom I am currently talking. Otherwise I will tend to use what is normal for me and wait for the one-to-one situations afterwards in order to match their style.
Now in creating Rapport with a group, or when addressing a meeting or conference for example, I’ll use a variety of styles and approaches. Including matching body language with key players (the ones that I recognise others are deferring to) and using the key 3-5 seconds of eye contact with each person to create rapport with them at a number of levels.”
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