That 'good eye contact' thing

What is 'good' eye contact?

It would have been funny...

.. if it weren't so sad.

He was trying really hard - the electrical goods salesman. 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 sticking to those rules. Resolutely and determinedly.

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.

Best not to intervene

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!”

And I did have some empathy with the salesman. It was an area which I'd struggled with for years in my early days as a junior manager.

I'd read lots of books on communication skills and learned, variously,  that you should look steadily into their eyes, or look at the area between their eyes, or even, amazingly, defocus and look at their ears!

Of course, being so self conscious of where I was looking meant I found it very difficult to remember what I was saying or supposed to say - or why I was saying it.

The Myth about 'Good Eye Contact'

This was years ago, yet it's amazing how many communication skills' books and courses perpetuate the myth that there's this thing called Good Eye Contact which frequently, and for some reason or other, means gazing steadily fixedly into the other person's eyes.

As with any communication skills rule this will work fine for a few people.

And for many others it's likely to be a quite uncomfortable experience - or they'll begin to wonder whether you're 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!

Common Eye Contact styles

Spend a little while observing people and you will soon recognise that there are many different eye contact styles. Here are the four most common:

(1) The Fixed Stare

Their eyes never leave you and practically bore through you. This style is often accompanied by the Knuckle Cruncher Handshake.  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

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.

(If you have done some NLP training you'll recognise that, rather than indicating untrustworthiness or low 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. See this article on the NLP Eye Movements.)

(3) The No-Eye-Contact style

Their eyes rarely, if ever, meet yours. They look past you, or even off to the side, use peripheral vision to watch you. This style is much favoured by country dwellers where lifestyle does 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.  The No-Eye-Contact style can also be related to cultural or religious norms.

(4) The Turn-And-Turn-About

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.).

Eye Contact - some NLP tips

The NLP approach is to 'meet them where they are' - 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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)

And the best method of all...? Use the Soft Eyes technique.


…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?  Watching the little scene distracted me from the product I had wanted to enquire about. So I left the store, too. It wasn't his day.


This was originally in our NLP Newsletter and I received the following email from one subscriber - just three hours after she received this newsletter.

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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