While our words speak for themselves, eye contact is a form of body language that communicates more than our sentences. Eye contact can voice personal characteristics like confidence and determination and show that we’re a good listener. It demonstrates that we’re focusing and paying attention to what another person has to say, and also makes others feel respected and valued, rather than ignored and dismissed.
Having good eye contact allows good trust, too — it’s a way to build relationships, and therefore makes or breaks an interaction. Yet many struggle with maintaining eye contact, even if they know its benefits and the importance of maintaining it. Their inability to do so can limit how they interact with others, making them appear uninterested, unappreciative, bored, nervous or even upset.
It can be really hard to make eye contact if you haven’t been used to doing it your whole life. If you’re naturally shy or nervous, looking someone in the eyes can bring an added pressure to your interaction and decrease your confidence. Preexisting anxiety and social disorders often exacerbate the problem and make the ability to hold eye contact even harder to grasp.
Eye contact anxiety occurs when someone has exceptional discomfort when looking other people in the eye. They may feel like they can’t look directly into someone else’s eyes and fear what they might think if they do look at them directly. Without a mental health challenge diagnosis, this anxiety is often manifested from shyness or nervousness.
A person with social anxiety disorder has a constant fear of being watched by or humiliated in front of others. They may feel anxious about situations where they don’t know anyone and often dread events with increased social interaction. Eye contact is often a trigger for this type of anxiety disorder.
Making eye contact is often a stressful act for those affected by autism. Instead of using nonverbal communication to demonstrate their interest or understanding, those with autism are often encouraged to use their words to agree or demonstrate their concern. While not every autistic person may be initially receptive to eye contact, there are ways to encourage the act with behavioral strategies like building on interests and visual supports.
Even if we struggle with certain anxieties or social disorders that may make eye contact difficult, with persistence and determination, eye contact skills can improve to make the most of everyday interactions.
If you’re not ready to jump right in with a partner, start by trying to look at yourself in the mirror. It’s sillier than many of the contexts in which you’ll want to have good eye contact, but it makes you take a step back and understand what you look like when you’re looking at somebody else. Are you always smiling? Do you look calm and collected? Practicing with a mirror can show you how you look and give you the ability to accept or adjust what you see. With no partner, there’s no pressure to listen and respond — you can simply focus on yourself.
Find someone you trust and to whom you feel confident divulging your awkwardness and fears about eye contact. If they’re willing to help you, have them sit or stand across from you and start to practice your eye contact. Start with a wordless exercise — simply staring into one another’s eyes. It may feel scary and odd, but getting comfortable staring directly at someone for a long period of time will make short bursts of eye contact less scary and much more manageable.
If you have a difficult time look into another person’s eyes, start off by focusing on another spot on their face right near their eyes. This can be the corner of their left eye right next to their nose or smack in the middle of the eye line right where their nose meet in between their eyebrows. Choosing a spot communicates the same focus that eye contact does without the stress of looking directly into someone’s eyes.
If you want to improve your eye contact, it’s important you don’t go too far in the opposite direction and overlook the recipient. Focusing too much on your partner’s eyes instead of what they’re saying can be detrimental to the conversation and is counterproductive toward building a relationship. Try mirroring your partner to alleviate any issues of awkwardness or discomfort. Simply put: if your partner looks at you, you look back. If they look away, you also break eye contact. Following what they do ensures you’re not looking too long or too little at them and follows suit with their natural eye contact rhythm.
Like matching your partner, this rule works to combat any issues with too much eye contact as well as too little. When conversing with someone, look at them for five to 10 seconds before looking away. When you do look away, tilt your head slightly as if you’re thinking about what the person has just said. This rule ensures that you’re maintaining eye contact with your partner enough to express interest and show respect; however, it also keeps you from staring too long and worrying or concerning the other person.
Eye contact is not only important for how you come off to other people but also how you think of yourself and approach the world. While preexisting anxieties and mental health challenges can make eye contact difficult, being able look into someone’s eyes for a longer period of time is not impossible. With the right practice and mentality, anyone can improve their eye contact and be on their way to increased confidence, respect and connections.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.