We have heard it said that when communicating with others we should make eye contact. Public speakers are encouraged to make eye contact with their audiences. Science now confirms what we have long felt in our bodies when connecting with another person through eye contact.
Think about a time someone made meaningful eye contact with you while speaking, perhaps individually or perhaps in a group setting. Through eye contact you felt a connection with the person sharing, and likely, they felt the same. When presenting in groups eye contact enables the audience to connect, and it keeps the presenter connected to the listeners.
Through neuroscience we know that eye contact is shown to involve the cerebellum, which helps predict the sensory consequences of actions. And it triggers the limbic mirror system, a set of brain areas that are active both when we move any part of the body (including the eyes) and when we observe someone else doing the same. Generally, the limbic system underlies our ability to recognize and share emotion. In other words, it is critical to our capacity for empathy.
Two of the greatest ways to build connection and empathy during conversation is through eye contact and mirroring. Beginning with healthy eye contact, communication can open up through empathy and connection.
Often a barrier to eye contact is a sense of vulnerability. So begin a conversation by making eye contact. Before you ever say a word, start by connecting with your eyes. Remember, it is not just eye connection--it's what the eyes are communicating as well. It is important that the message of the eyes and the message of the words align.
Someone can say "everything is fine" with their words; however, the eyes tell a different story. Our neurological system is reading the underlying message and mistrust, confusion, uncertainty among other feelings begin stirring internally. The brain begins to ask questions like: "Can I trust this person?" "What else is happening here?" "What are they not telling me?"
Studies have shown that direct eye contact for more than 30% of a conversation can increase encoding in the brain of information. This means that eye contact can actually help us remember what was said.
Here are some simple reminders about making eye contact:
1. Begin the conversation with eye contact--before you say a word.
2. Ensure your eyes communicate a message aligned with your overall intentions of the conversation.
3. Practice making eye contact for 30-50% of conversations.
4. Body language can assist with emphasizing the message of your eyes and words.
5. Ultimately eye contact is about empathy which means practicing personal vulnerability and openness.