Office Behavior: Eye Contact Is Overrated

Eye contact is overrated
Illustration by Al Murphy

Eye contact is almost always considered a good thing. Parents demand it from naughty children; it’s also advised when you’re fighting with your spouse. A forthright gaze signals trustworthiness. Richard Nixon wasn’t great at it.

A study published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, however, finds that if you want to persuade someone to take your side, a direct stare isn’t necessarily helpful. Researchers used eye-tracking technology to see how often a listener met the eyes of a speaker who took a stance he disagreed with. Say you work in finance and take issue with a colleague’s valuation of an asset. You think it’s worth more; he thinks it’s worth less. You’re more likely to get him closer to your number if you look at his mouth, not his eyes.

Eye contact is like “Goldilocks and the three bears,” says Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead. Too much is supercreepy (Goman calls it “a prolonged stalker stare”), and too little makes you seem unreliable. Instead, aim for “just right”—you know, somewhere between stalker and liar. Meeting a person for the first time, such as in a job interview, “you can’t go wrong with strong eye contact,” Goman says. You want to look at him long enough so you can see the color of his eyes. Just don’t comment on it, stalker.

If you’re having a one-on-one with a familiar co-worker, eye contact depends on context, says Julia Minson, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a co-author of the study. “Eye contact from a high-status person to a low-status person can be seen as very domineering,” Minson says. It reminds people of a parent or teacher. Dogs stare each other in the eye before they start fighting for territory. Goman agrees that eye contact from a superior can be overwhelming. In her anecdotal experience as an executive coach, she’s never heard a manager complain about a subordinate with an overly intense gaze, but she’s heard workers grouse about the bullying bosses who stare them down.

In small groups you get the best results from eye contact if you look at someone when he’s speaking, rather than when you’re speaking. It signals “respect, inclusion, and empathy,” Goman says. She even suggests a formula: Make eye contact 50 percent or less when you’re speaking and 50 percent or more when someone else is speaking. In bigger groups, lock eyes with key people in the room for a couple of seconds each while you’re talking. “You don’t want to look up, like the answers are on the ceiling,” Goman says, because you come across as unprepared. You don’t want to look down, either, or let your eyes go too quickly around the room, because it looks jerky.

Is there ever a situation when a prolonged, direct gaze is appropriate and even necessary? Minson gives the example of a hard negotiation, one in which you don’t care if the other person agrees with or even likes you: “If you just want them to back down, eye contact can be a signal of dominance.” In our tech-saturated world, where co-workers’ eyes are constantly darting to their smartphone screens, an intense glare can be a little scary. Remember that the next time you’re trying to get a colleague to back off or when sparring with an unfriendly dachshund.

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