There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal, The Fading Art of Eye Contact. It speaks to how little eye contact is used during a conversation. And yet, good eye contact is one of the best ways to build rapport and productive relationships in the workplace. I am reminded of this every time I conduct a coaching skills workshop for managers.
To effectively coach someone in the workplace one has to demonstrate respect, interest and engagement. The basis of this is good eye contact. To illustrate the point, I utilize an exercise whereby one person will speak for three minutes and the other will listen. And by listening, I mean not speaking at all. The instructions alone creates a stir in the room. Either people are unsettled by the prospect of speaking for three minutes straight or conversely unnerved by not being able to speak. With some coaxing we start the exercise. I witness firsthand the initial uneasiness of this simple yet powerful exercise. At the end of each three minutes the listener will briefly recap what they heard and what they observed about the person speaking.
Because there are no distractions, people create a natural pattern of eye contact that provides focused attention married with breaks that allow the eyes to gaze away and return to the other person. Furthermore, the listener is much more observant and visibly engaged during the conversation. When we debrief after the exercise, the person who was speaking feels recognized and seen since the listener has given them their undivided attention. They are left feeling that someone really cares about what they have to say. For the listener, they not only retain more of what is being said, they also pick up subtle cues that leads to greater insight about the other person.
This exercise is always noted as a favorite because it brings to light the importance of eye contact, how it makes others feel and how quickly rapport can be established. There are many reasons why eye contact has faded as one of our most basic behaviors in the workplace; electronic devices, multi-tasking, remote working arrangements and short attention spans. But I wonder if there is not a more simple answer, there is not enough awareness around the importance of good eye contact. Maybe it has been taken for granted and now has to be taught. After, reading the WSJ article I was speaking with a client who makes a point to teach their kids how to maintain eye contact especially when talking to adults. Hopefully, this a good start for the next generation.