When to Avoid Eye Contact
One of the most common “body language” tips out there is Look People in the Eye. Make eye contact! I have said it, too. Eye contact demonstrates that you are present and listening, it can show respect and empathy, it conveys confidence, and it can create connection and rapport. When you’re with another person, be sure to look them in the eye from time to time. On video, look at the camera.
However, like most things in life, there is a time and a place for eye contact. Except for star-crossed lovers in movies, no one stares into each other’s eyes 100% of the time. Staring is unwelcome and creepy! Precisely because eye contact invites a connection, it can feel invasive and even threatening when someone won’t stop looking at you. In conversations, aim to make eye contact about half the time.
Beyond that, though, there are times to actively avoid eye contact, believe it or not. Here are three times it’s best to take a break from looking people in the eye:
You don’t want to talk.
Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re in a hurry. Maybe you’re focused on getting an issue taken care of. I have written before about how I often use trips to the grocery store to practice claiming space with amazing results: strangers talk to me, smile at me, ask me for help or my opinion, joke with me, and compliment me.
More often than not though when I go to the grocery store, I am not there to invite connection with others. No offense to the other shoppers! I just want to get my veggies and toothpaste and get home. So, I don’t make much eye contact.
At times, you may have to talk to people even when you don’t want to. Yet a huge part of time management, self-care, and confidence-building comes down to creating, communicating, and maintaining boundaries. Do not invite connection or conversation through eye contact when you can’t or don’t actually want to. It sends a mixed message and can create guilt or confusion.
You are transitioning.
Use these three ingredients to nonverbally signal a shift in conversations and presentations:
- Break eye contact.
- Move—either step to a new spot or simply shift your posture.
Then, look back up with a pleasant demeanor and start fresh with the new content. This works like magic when you need to end a conversation, change the subject, move to the next point, or move on from something negative.
Breaking eye contact and changing position is like hitting the “reset” button. It’s difficult to end a conversation or even a topic while you’re looking at the person you’re speaking with. Eye contact is like nonverbal encouragement to keep going! In presentations, if you continually look at your audience, they never get a break and your content all runs together. Look away to create a separation when you want to leave something behind whether that’s the current subject, the embarrassing mistake you just made, or the conversation as a whole.
You want to create space.
They say eyes are the window to the soul. Eye contact, by nature, is intimate and personal. It can build relationships. It can also feel like an invasion of privacy.
When people are crying or feeling ashamed, they instinctively look away. If someone retreats from you, do not insist on eye contact! You can express empathy and support by breathing calmly, listening, and patting them on the back if appropriate. But give them the space they need to get through their emotional reaction, by standing or sitting next to them, rather than facing them and making eye contact.
This also applies any time you’re the bearer of bad news. Not only does avoiding eye contact give the other person space to react, it creates a distinction between you and the negative information. Because eye contact creates connection, looking people in the eye when you have something negative to say connects you with the message. Again, get off to the side, so that you and the other person are looking together at the issue (physically or metaphorically), rather than the issue becoming YOU due to eye contact.
Another time to avoid eye contact and create space for people is when they need to think. Eye contact is such an intense experience that it can be hard to get your brain going when it feels like someone is staring at you. In coaching sessions, if I ask a question that requires deep thought, I make eye contact for a moment, and then look down at my notepad while breathing slowly and deeply to give clients space and time. I’ve also heard from friends and clients that it’s impossible to come up with creative ideas when someone is standing there, watching them think, waiting for the output. If you want answers, stop staring.
In all these cases, breaking eye contact does not mean awkwardly looking down at your belly button or twiddling your thumbs. To make the break natural, remember these two things:
1. Breathe. When you breathe shallowly or hold your breath, you convey stress, anxiety, or anger. Breaking eye contact when you’re sending out strong “I am unhappy!” signals will definitely create a negative impression. If you breathe deeply, however, it changes the vibe completely. Now, you’re calm and focused.
2. Look purposefully. Have something else to look at when you don’t want to make eye contact. If you have a difficult conversation coming up, prepare something in advance for both you and the other party to view. In video conversations you can share your screen or send an email ahead. When possible, look at something specific, and when it makes sense, direct the other person to look there, too. It is okay to glance downward, though, especially if you are moving and breathing well.
Most of the time, looking people in the eye is a GREAT idea. There are times, however, when doing so is counterproductive, ineffective, or even unwelcome. So many people take “make eye contact” for granted. Learn to use eye contact appropriately and it will increase your well-being, improve your productivity, and strengthen your relationships. All because you know when to look away!