An iconic UCLA research study found that 93% of human communication is non-verbal (i.e. body language), and the most powerful of all forms of body language is undoubtedly eye contact. When we engage in eye contact — whether it’s in a professional setting, a friendship setting, a dating setting, a conflict setting, an erotic setting, etc. — not only are we communicating a flood of information with our eyes, we are also activating a direct physiological response in ourselves and in the other person. “Eye contact results in physiologic arousal — it increases prefrontal brain activity and activates the sympathetic nervous system, speeding up a person’s heart rate, perspiration, and breathing,” explain Brett and Kate McKay in The Art of Manliness. “And this happens not only when you’re directly looking into someone’s eyes, but also when you simply perceive that someone is staring at you.” The take-home message being this — eye contact is even more powerful of a form of communication than language itself, and there are many tricks, secrets, and tips you can use to harness its full power to completely transform your life — whether it’s getting that big promotion, winning every argument, boosting your confidence and overall well-being, making someone fall in love with you, and so much more.
1. LOOKING AT THE DOMINANT EYE & LEFT GAZE BIAS: You might not realize it, but it’s impossible to look at someone in both of their eyes at the same time — you always involuntarily choose one (and occasionally switch from one to the other). Interestingly enough, researchers have discovered that when we engage in conversation, 90% of us will look at the other person in their left eye. “The dominant eye is the eye that looks directly at an object,” writes David Boles. “The non-dominant eye is the eye that looks at the same object at a slight angle. This small difference provides depth perception … What most of us don’t realize is that when we make eye contact with another person — in person — we don’t make ‘eyes’ contact, we only make a singular ‘eye’ contact. We cannot look at both eyes of a person at the same time. We can only look at one of their eyes at a time. Perhaps unwittingly, that is how the phrase ‘Look me in the eye!’ came into being.” UPDATE (The science of Left Gaze Bias): A 2009 study published by the NCBI and the National Institutes of Health found the following with regards to Left Gaze Bias: “While viewing faces, human adults often demonstrate a natural gaze bias towards the left visual field, that is, the right side of the viewee’s face is often inspected first and for longer periods. Using a preferential looking paradigm, we demonstrate that this bias is neither uniquely human nor limited to primates, and provide evidence to help elucidate its biological function within a broader social cognitive framework.” Writer Linda Cole adds: “When we meet another person, our gaze normally scans the right side of their face (i.e. your visual left, their physical right), as long as they are in an upright position. The left side of our brain controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain controls the left side. It’s the left hemisphere of the brain that controls how we show emotion which is displayed on the right side of our face. The left side of our face shows almost no emotion because the right side of the brain has a different function and doesn’t control our emotional state of mind. Looking at the right side of the face is called left gaze bias, or left face bias.”
2. THE FIVE-SECOND “LOOK UP” RULE FOR TALKING: When it comes to eye contact, one must realize that too much can be a bad thing when we’re talking. The secret rule for when you are speaking is to hold eye contact with someone for 5 seconds then take a break. This “break” takes the form of looking away temporarily, and the best way to do this is by looking slightly up and off to the right for a brief moment. By looking up and off to the right you are subconsciously telling the other person you are thinking of a positive memory or processing their info in a positive way. If you look down, you are negatively communicating to them that the conversation is dead and over.
3. THE FIVE-SECOND “TRIANGLE” RULE FOR LISTENING: UK-based Personal Development expert Steven Aitchison writes, “When you are listening to someone it can be off-putting for the talker if you stare at them too hard. The technique I use when I am counselling someone is to use what I call The Triangle. This is when I look at one eye for about 5 seconds, look at the other eye for 5 seconds and then look at the mouth for 5 seconds and keep on rotating in this way. This technique coupled with other listening skills such as nodding, occasional agreement words such as ‘yes’, ‘Uh–huh’, ‘mm’, etc., is a great way to keep the talker talking and to show them you are interested in what they are saying.”
4. THE RULE OF THIRDS: Another easy to remember trick is the Rule of Thirds. Social anxiety expert Sean Cooper writes, “When talking, make eye contact 1/3 of the time. When listening, make eye contact 2/3 of the time. For everyday conversation, make eye contact in spurts of 3-4 seconds.” Cooper adds, “You know that feeling of nervousness, discomfort, awkwardness or even fear that comes up when you look someone in the eyes? How do you get rid of that? The answer is practice. The scientific word for this is progressive desensitization. What does that mean?” You can read Cooper’s full explanation HERE.
5. PUPILS, POWER & THREAT: In an article for Psychology Today, Adrian Furnham, Ph.D. writes, “Interpersonal Relationships: People look at those they like more than those they do not — and our pupils dilate more when we are looking at those we like. Gaze also signals dominance: More powerful people are looked at more (partly because they tend to look more and speak less). Threat is also indicated by gaze: direct gaze signals threat, while cutting off or averting your gaze is likely to signal appeasement.” It’s not a coincidence that police officers wear reflective sunglasses — they do this as way of preventing eye contact from fueling and escalating potential conflicts.
6. NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION IS 5X MORE POWERFUL THAN VERBAL: One research study discovered that participants unconsciously found nonverbal communication to be 5X more trustworthy than verbal communication. “The power of nonverbal signals in general is demonstrated by one study which pitted verbal against nonverbal signals,” writes PsyBlog. “This found that when they contradict each other, we are five times more likely to believe the nonverbal signal (Argyle et al., 1971). And: ‘When verbal and non-verbal signals were inconsistent, the performance was rated as insincere, unstable and confusing.'”
7. CONFIDENCE-BOOSTING EYE CONTACT EXERCISE: OK, you’ve made it to #7 which means you now know more about the psychology of eye contact than probably most of your friends. Congrats! Now you can start to put your knowledge into practice and take your eye contact skills to the Jedi level. “A good exercise for someone who is new or shy is to practice never breaking eye contact with people before they break it with you,” writes author, blogger and entrepreneur Mark Manson. “Walk around all day and make eye contact with people you find interesting or attractive. You’ll feel uncomfortable making eye contact with strangers, but that’s the idea. Keep doing it until it feels natural. It will help your confidence.” You can read Mark’s brilliant breakdown of all 9 levels of eye contact (with level #7 being “The Eye Fuck“) at MarkManson.net.
8. THE JEDI GAZE: “People who seek eye contact while speaking are regarded not only as exceptionally well-disposed by their targets, but also as more believable and earnest,” adds Furnham in Psychology Today. “Politicians ‘sweep’ the room with their gaze. Salesmen know to look at each member of their audience.” Nick Morgan is author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, (published by Harvard Business Review Press) and in an interview with Alan Crawford, Morgan tells the story of an encounter he once had with the Dalai Lama. “I was in grad school, and the Dalai Lama had become a big hero of mine, years before he became the kind of media figure he is today. He was to appear before a small group of about 35 of us, but about 75 showed up. The room was jam-packed. He was late, and we waited and waited. Finally, he came onto the stage, where there was a chair for him. But he didn’t sit in the chair. He sat on the floor of the stage, and he didn’t say a word. He just looked at each of us, one by one. He probably made eye contact with everybody in there. It wasn’t the least bit intrusive or creepy, but it was personal. We were dumbstruck. Then he let out a strange, unearthly laugh and said that because we had waited so long, he probably needed to say something profound. He talked for a while about Buddhism. But what I remembered wasn’t what he said but the incredible eloquence of his body language, of the way he connected with each of us on some deep, nonverbal level. Other people at the event said the same thing. And I realized that much of what we think we know about communications is simply wrong, and I wanted to understand it better.”
9. HOW TO GET YOUR DREAM JOB, WIN ARGUMENTS, AND USE MIND CONTROL: In The Art of Manliness, Brett and Kate McKay refer to one study which found that job interviewers “were more likely to hire and rate as credible and attractive interviewees who maintained a normal or high degree of gaze than those who averted their gaze.” This rated as the second most important predictor in getting hired, second only to the way you dress during the interview. Furthermore, higher-status individuals tend to make strong eye contact when they’re speaking and less eye contact when they’re listening. But the McKays also footnote this with the following: “Even if you do actually have higher-status than the person with whom you’re conversing, the best way to go is to make equal amounts of eye contact whether you’re speaking or listening. It pays to make a lot of eye contact when listening, as it makes the other person feel important, and making other people feel important is the linchpin of becoming charming and thus persuasive. Famously charismatic men like President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton were well-known for their ability to make each person they met feel like no one else in the room mattered, and they did that by locking eyes with the person and really listening to him or her. But in situations where it would be advantageous to show that there’s a pecking order, and that you’re on top of it, try making more eye contact when you speak and less when you listen.”
10. HOW TO USE EYE CONTACT TO MAKE SOMEONE FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU: Sean Cooper refers to the work of psychologist Arthur Aaron, “who believed you can make anyone fall in love with you by asking them 36 personal questions and then looking them deeply in the eyes for 4 minutes.” To read the technical details of the study in full you can CLICK HERE, but to see what happens (in human terms) when Aaron’s work is put to the test, be sure to read Mandy Len Catron’s wonderful article published in The New York Times’ Modern Love series. You can also read Aaron’s wife explain in her own words how the questionnaire came to be, in a terrific essay she wrote for The Huffington Post. (UPDATE: The New York Times has created a free mobile app for the 36 questions, designed in consultation with Arthur Aron, the lead author of the study. Visit NYTimes.com/36q on your phone or tablet to get started. You’ll want a partner — a friend, lover or stranger — and it takes about 50 minutes).
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