When I walk my kids to school, or through the store, or past a homeless person, it is easy to keep our eyes on the ground instead of looking at those around us. I have to make a conscious choice to look at the faces of people I do not know. It makes me wonder why. Is it because there is a real power and connection that can be sent? Are we afraid that someone will discover something about us hidden in our eyes, or is it that we will discover something about them that we will then need to process? It is my theory that we avoid these connections out of fear of discovery or fear of the unknown.
Eye contact builds trust. I have noticed a definite pattern when I volunteer in my children's classrooms each year. Every year the children that don't know me will not really pay much attention to me being there at first. As I spend more time in the class I try to find a way to talk to them eye-to-eye at some point. I naturally bend down to meet their eyes when I am with them and ask what they think about their school work and watch them process and find answers. We are not talking about anything personal, yet they begin to trust me. Working in kindergarten was my favorite because eventually the kids ran for a hug when I arrived and waved and called good-bye when I left. It is like being a rock star, yet I never sang or danced for them. They just trust that I care for them, so they care for me.
Along with trust, comes honesty. Everybody knows somebody, or several somebodies, that will lie right to your face without losing eye contact for a second. In a way, that can be a tell that they are not telling the truth. It is a subtle art to read a person's face and you come to know the difference between eye contact with sincerity, and eye contact with a hard jaw. But even if they are able to fool you they have not fooled themselves. It bites at a person's conscience to lie directly like that. (Unless of course there is something traumatic or diagnosable going on.) The closer the relationship the harder it will be to lie to you so even if the first lie slips past you, next time they may feel like the truth is the better answer.
Next, eye contact shows interest. When my kids or husband approach me with a question or a story about their day I try really hard to put down whatever it is I am looking at and turn my attention to them. Turning off the screen on my phone, or setting down a book or closing the cover of my ipad, or looking up from a project, or pausing my tv show and looking at them while they talk sends the message that I am interested in what they have to say, and that I will pay attention to our conversation. The same thing goes in a work or classroom setting. When my eyes are on the speaker, they receive the message that I am listening to their presentation or lesson. They will remember that when it comes time for promotions or report cards too!
Finally, eye contact shares emotion. I think this is the one that makes people the most nervous. I don't always want to open up my feelings and make myself vulnerable. I worry that my feelings will be rejected or dismissed. Have you noticed how a person looks down when they feel ashamed? or how you can get a strong reaction from someone else without saying a word, but just by looking at them. I bet you have received one of these eye-messages too. Everybody knows their mom's (or dad's or grandparent's) "look." The look that tells you exactly what they think of what you just did or said. There are other labels for emotional eye contact too: "puppy dog eyes" are innocent, "doe eyes" are beautiful or romantic, "stink eye" or the "evil eye" mean hatred.
So what's the message you can take from this? Can you use eye contact more to build a relationship with someone you know?