As a communication specialist, I’m always interested in current communication trends and where communication, in general, is heading. For context, my area of specialty in communication focuses on the cognitive aspects, such as how we encode the messages we send or decode the messages from others. In other words, I find combining the fields of communication, psychology and neuroscience, utterly fascinating and also useful in helping people convey intended meanings to others.


With this framework in mind, it has been interesting the last decade or so to see how the art of communication has been morphing. And while communication is always evolving, we have never experienced anything quite so unique in our human history as we are living today. While there are lots of directions we could take this topic (some of which I’ll address at a later date), I’m going to focus on one area in communication that is influencing our lives, perhaps without us even knowing. That is the changing behaviors surrounding eye contact. 


We have never, in our history as humans, communicated with so little eye contact. While in past generations, we would mail letters and talk on the phone, both of which we did without eye contact, for most people, the majority of their communication was done in a face-to-face setting. Today, emails have taken the place of longer letters, texts will do for shorter conversations. We still use the phone, occasionally. And, of course, now we have video chats as well, along with social media. So many ways to stay connected. But none of those… none… provide the opportunity for real eye contact. Video chats do allow for facial expressions, and if one person looks right into the camera, it feels like they are making eye contact, but to do that they cannot be looking at your face when they do it. 


Why this is important: Eyes hold a special power with humans. Not only do they help us visually take in the world, but they connect us in a unique way. We can look at something as visual stimuli and be disconnected emotionally from whatever it is. We have to consciously stop and be willing to feel something when we are looking at something. We are less vulnerable then, when we have the ability to choose whether or not to connect with something or someone. This is what we see with most of the communication we, as a society, do today. It happens in a place where vulnerability is a choice.


Now, eye contact. The reciprocal act of looking into another’s eyes directly, is very different.  This puts us in a much more vulnerable position. We’re not just seeing, but we are being seen. Being seen makes us more vulnerable and, especially for those who may not be accustomed to it, can make us uncomfortable. If we are not used to much face-to-face interaction with others, this type of vulnerability can make us self-conscious, overly aware of ourselves, or even feel like we need to deflect eye contact. All of these options increase the cortisol (stress hormone) in our bodies and make us feel anxious and like something is wrong. 


But eye contact is actually a good thing, if we look at it from a different perspective. Eye contact is actually one of the most powerful tools we have to connect with others. True connection with another involves vulnerability. You cannot, in fact, have an authentic and genuine connection with someone without placing yourself in a position of vulnerability. Eye contact, in our culture, is associated with honesty. When we look into another’s eyes, we are showing them that we are being genuine and searching for the same in them. Looking at that in reverse, when others look into our eyes, they are showing us their authentic self and searching us for the same. This connection, from mutual eye contact, brings about a sense of trust in each other. We are saying, through this eye behavior, that we have an understanding of honesty between us. 


If we are going to become authentic leaders who care about others, we need to be intentional about making good eye contact. When we do, we show people we are worthy of their trust. We are willing to be vulnerable with them and therefore, they can trust us enough to be vulnerable with us. Yes, we all have times we need to text, call, email, etc. But we should take every opportunity to make those personal connections by using sincere eye contact with those about whom we care. If this is uncomfortable for you, keep in mind that this, like all of the other aspects of communication, is a skill. Skills are built partly through knowledge but mostly through practice. In other words, the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone by making better eye contact, the more comfortable you will become with doing it. And, in the end, that discomfort will be worth it because you will find more authentic connections in some of the most unexpected places.

-Bridget Markwood

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