The lost art of eye contact

We’ve stopped seeing each other. You and me. All of us.

Our eyes may indeed be windows to our soul, but with our necks craned downward and our eyes focused on tiny handheld screens, who can tell? We hardly make an effort to look at the person we’re talking to anymore. Younger people, in general, find it challenging to maintain eye contact with adults. Video conferencing complicates things further. When is the last time you consciously looked into someone’s eyes and had a meaningful conversation?

When nearly every personal and business interaction uses a screen as an intermediary, it’s difficult to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with employees, customers and partners. But such relationships are the cornerstone of building a long-term business. So put down that smart phone, walk away from the computer, and think about these five things:

Speak with Your Eyes

We communicate so much with a simple look. Are you genuinely interested and receptive to ideas or do your eyes dart away while someone is talking? A challenging stare can thwart collaboration before a word is spoken. Even if your eyes are relaxed and attentive, your eyebrows may convey concern, surprise and other emotions. Relax your face when you’re meeting with someone and use your eyes to meet theirs for five seconds at a time, while making note of their overall body language.

Listen to Their Eyes

Without looking directly into someone’s eyes, you’ll miss millions of visual clues as to what’s going on inside their head. Can you see fear? A spark of excitement? A glazed look of boredom? Are the other person’s arms crossed or relaxed at their side? You can’t read body language if your eyes are looking past them, down at papers or at your phone. Carefully pay attention to the other person’s eyes, and you’ll learn more than you ever could from lifeless words on a screen.

Look for the “Tell”

In poker, it’s called the “tell”: the habitual signal your opponent makes that betrays whether he or she is holding a full house or a hand full of nothing. Someone is telling you something. She can’t make eye contact with you. Why? Perhaps she’s afraid to deliver bad news or wants to be somewhere else. If a customer or employee is staring at the ceiling or evading your eyes for no apparent reason at all, you need to figure out what’s really going on.

Be Shifty-Eyed

If you’re making a presentation to a group you need to look at everyone in the room. The guy over there in blue jeans? He might be the CEO. Ignoring eye contact with all the women? You’ve just alienated both the CMO and CFO. Take your time. Be deliberate. Connect while you speak by scanning and making brief eye contact with everyone in the room. That’s a great way to change your message into a truly powerful connection.

But Don’t Be Creepy

Eye contact is something most people struggle with, yet it’s a critical component of communication. Relax. Blink normally. Don’t squint or stare. Above all, eye contact should not be awkward or creepy. The goal is not to drill into the other person’s soul with an unbroken gaze for extended periods of time. Just work on being fully present when meeting with someone — and pay attention to your eyeballs.