We all know eye contact is important in conversation and communication, but why? What does it do for us as hearers and as listeners?
Imagine you have a conversation with someone who never looks up from their phone. Okay, maybe you don’t have to imagine this lack of eye contact very hard because it just happened yesterday. It’s not surprising, considering that 95% of American adults have cell phones and 90% of kids and teens have cell phones. Has this affected our ability to have meaningful face-to-face conversation? You bet it has.
A study done by Tamyra Pierce reveals the impact of technology on high school students. After surveying 280 high school students, she found that most students experience social anxiety with face-to-face interaction, which actually increases their online activity. It was much easier for them to meet new friends online than it was meeting new people in person.
Face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art. But we can show the importance of eye contact by teaching the following concepts:
Eye contact shows respect.
Making eye contact with someone while he’s speaking demonstrates a willingness to put other things aside and give her your full, undivided attention. (I think we’ve all been in conversations with people who never look up from their phones. We often walk away wondering if we’ve been heard.)
Eye contact conveys appreciation.
Eye contact conveys appreciation for the time and energy the speaker is putting into the relationship. We’ve all been in a conversation in which the other person is looking around the room trying to find something else more interesting to do. There’s not much else that shuts down a conversation faster than avoiding eye contact.
Eye contact demonstrates understanding.
When you’re making eye contact with the speaker, you’re showing him that you’re actively listening, engaged, and understanding what he’s saying. It encourages the speaker to keep moving forward, and to be confident in what he’s saying.
Eye contact builds connection.
You may have experienced making eye contact with someone across a crowded room. So much can be conveyed in this connection: approval, boredom, aggravation, flirtation, motivation, or humor at what’s going on. No words need to be said, even if it happens between strangers. The same is true in an intentional conversation. As a listener, your eye contact builds connection with the speaker or another listener. As a speaker, eye contact with your audience shows that you value everyone equally.
Eye contact boosts confidence.
Eye contact boosts confidence not only for the speaker, but also the listener. As a speaker, eye contact conveys that you believe what you’re saying, and that it’s worth people’s time to listen. As a listener, eye contact with the speaker put you on equal ground. Conversely, glancing around while someone is speaking makes you appear nervous and unsure of what you should do next with the information that’s being shared.
Eye contact makes you more likeable.
When we make eye contact with the speaker or look our audience in the eye when we’re sharing something, we instantly become more likeable. This eye contact imparts a sense of intimacy, instills confidence, and builds rapport. All of this adds to our likability! And when we’re perceived as likeable, people are more apt to not only listen to us, but also give a thoughtful response.
Helping Students Make More Eye Contact
One of the critical points for helping students connect in meaningful ways includes learning body language of listening, including eye contact. We know, thought, that there is a range of reasons why youth avoid eye contact. They might include:
- Students who are on the spectrum
- Youth who have trauma histories that leave them with difficulties in trusting others
- Youth who don’t feel liked by others and who lack self-confidence
- Youth who mask their emotions
Because 5 Radical Minutes is a daily positive experience between all peers, over time most of those who lack self-confident or basic trust of others will gradually improve in their capacity to have and maintain appropriate eye contact.
Teach Listening Skills
As adults see students who are avoiding eye contact, there are a couple of options. You can speak to these students individually when peers won’t hear, but you can also give suggestions to the whole class without identifying any specific students. Either way, consider the suggestions below:
- “One way to show we’re listening is to look at their eyes, not staring, but with “soft eyes,” indicating that we’re paying attention.”
- “Another is that we nod, remembering that we can’t interrupt and talk, but we can nod, you might say, “um hum” just to let the other person know you are tuned in and paying attention.”
- “If it is difficult to look into someone’s eyes, you might fold your hands and place them on the desk between you and look at your hands and glance up into the face of your partner. It might be easier to look at his or her mouth or face and not just eyes.”
Community Circle Practice
Another option is to turn a Community Circle day into a “Circle Smile” day. Have the students line up in two lines facing each other. The facilitator needs to have some kind of bell or meditation cymbals to ring every five to seven seconds. (Students may need to practice the movement before they actually do the activity, but they’ll catch on quickly and you won’t have to practice more than once or twice for most groups.
- Have each person look at the person in front of them and smile at that person.
- When the bell rings, students take one step to the right. (When a student reaches the end of the row, he steps forward and turns around to join the opposite row so the student who was on his left is now facing him.)
- When each student has turned twice, everyone will be back to their starting places. It might be worth using one time to practice the movement, and then to have some informal Q & A time afterward, posing some open questions:
Questions for Younger Students:
- What are some other ways we can greet one another? Who would demonstrate?
- High fives
- Shaking hands
- Fist bumps
- What are some others?
Questions for Older Students:
- What are some ways teachers let you know that they’re interested in how you’re doing?
- What can you do to move from the comfort of a social media friend to having deeper conversations with them?
- How is talking in person different than online?
- Why is it important for us to have face-to-face time that includes eye contact?
- When are you most comfortable talking face-to-face with people?
These are just a few of the activities you could use during your Community Circle time to encourage more eye contact. Learning this skill is just like learning any other — eye contact takes practice. But it is a life-long skill that will bring incredible rewards! We’d love to hear about ways you’ve learned to increase eye contact in conversation and the benefits you’ve experienced as a result.