The Eyes Have It!

One should never underestimate the importance of nonverbal communication and how it influences how we communicate with others. Non verbal communication is defined as all intentional and non-intentional messages that are exchanged without the use of the spoken word. Of the various types of nonverbal communication, the face is responsible for most of the meaning in nonverbal communication. Cultural differences aside, in the United States, the lack of eye contact on the part of the listener may be interpreted as disrespect or disinterest.  In addition, the lack of eye contact on the part of the speaker may cause the listener to interpret the message less favorably. (Exline & Eldridge, 1967). With these definitions in mind, one needs to take into consideration the amount of eye contact they use when conversing.

Often when communicating with someone in a higher status position, the person of lesser status actually makes more eye contact than the person in the higher position, although greater eye glances are usually attributed to a person of higher status. It is as though the individual of lesser status is trying to garner the respect of the other. Eye contact is an important skill to master and one that many do not consider as a way to improve how you are perceived in the workplace.

When talking to another person, a confident, enthusiastic individual will usually make eye contact for five to ten seconds before looking away. That is what you should strive for in the majority of you conversations. To look longer or to stare can be misinterpreted as aggression, whereas a lack of eye contact can be sees as a lack of confidence.

An individual needs to feel listened to and eye contact is the best way to help a person feels you are listening. For this reason, it is important to maintain eye contact instead of glancing around the room during your conversation. As you communicate with others in the workplace, concentrate on how you look at them. We speak at approximately 150 to 160 words per minute, yet we have the ability to process 500-600 words a minute, which makes it easy to let our minds wander. Have you ever spoken to an individual and although they were making eye contact you knew they were thinking of something else? Often we need to really focus on our eye contact to make sure the individual with whom we are speaking feels we are listening to them.

On the other hand, it is important to understand that something else might be going on with an individual that has nothing to do with you. It is easy to put meaning to nonverbal communication when there is none. An incident at a manufacturing facility makes this point clear.

An individual was standing in the hall speaking to someone when a former coworker walked by and did not speak or make eye contact. Although they had been pretty good friends, the person in the hall did not think too much of the incident. The following day, the same thing happened again, only this time the former co-worker walked by and turned their head away. This frustrated the person in the hall who felt she had worked hard to make this person comfortable when she had joined the staff and went out of her way to help this individual. It was a Friday when the second incident happened because it rented space in the coworkers head until she decided she would look up this person and see “what her problem was!” The following Monday, she found her former coworker and entered her office. The woman looked up and smiled and said. “Hi, it’s good to see you. It has been awhile.”

The coworker was shocked and explained that indeed they had seen each other not once but twice the previous week in the front hall. The coworker looked puzzled then stopped, her eyes brimmed with tears and she said, “I am so sorry. I did not see you. My mother was just diagnosed with cancer and I have been a little out of it!” Imagine what would have happened if the coworker had not taken time to follow-up and find out this information. This incident would have probably influenced how she thought of her former co-worker from then on.Using eye contact is an important skill to master. For the next week, try to determine where you look when speaking to others.

Once you understand your pattern, try to find ways to improve your awareness of others. See how they respond to you when using different types of eye contact. In addition, see how you feel when someone does not maintain eye contact with you, and make sure you check things out before making judgments. It is a skill that will help you be seen as a more credible, valuable asset.