Classic Articles from the Vault #2

The Importance of Eye Contact

By Carmel Wynne

Have you ever tried to have a meaningful conversation with a family member or colleague who doesn’t make eye contact when you are speaking? My first instinct is to ask the person to look at me. Eye contact is an important nonverbal communication, especially for women whose brains are wired to respond to people and faces. 

Allan and Barbara Pease are among the world’s foremost experts on body language. They say that typically a woman can see an average of six different facial expressions in a 10 second period, reflect and give feedback on the other woman’s emotions. 

Picking up on intonation and body language, women can read the meaning of what is being said and accurately name the emotional response when another person feels joy, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, or desire. Men simply cannot do this. 

Brain scans show that men feel emotions as strongly as women, but they remain impassive when listening and avoid showing their emotions. The Peases say that the emotionless mask that men wear while listening allows them to feel in control. Understanding these differences in our styles of communication may be helpful for any woman who believes that her husband isn’t listening when he doesn’t make eye contact. 

Long before social conditioning has had time to have an effect, there are scientific, measurable difference between the sexes. Men and women’s brains are wired differently. The brain circuitry of each sex causes them to focus on different things and what is really interesting is that by listening to the words people use we can gain insights to help us communicate better.  

Effective communication is not so complicated once you understand gender differences and communication styles. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the originators of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), discovered that people think in different ways and that these differences correspond to the three principal senses – visual, auditory and feeling, which they called kinesthetics.  

It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman; your thinking is more inclined to one of three representational systems than to the other two. Internally we talk, have feelings, or generate visual images. Auditory people use words such as ‘listen’, ‘tune in’, ‘sounds like’ and can take an age to reply when you ask them a question. They will often break eye contact, not because they are disinterested but because they are paying close attention. If you interrupt them when they are preparing an answer they can get frustrated.  

Visual people tend to talk and behave as if they are picturing everything. They use words such as, ‘view’, ‘look’, ‘see’, and ‘show’. If they are interrupted it can cause them to lose part of the picture and interfere with their train of thought. Some visual people tend to look around and lose eye contact. This does not signal a lack of respect or interest, but it can be irritating. 

Sometimes when two people have different conversational styles they grate on each other. Visual people tend to speak quickly and to use their hands to complement whatever they are saying. This can be most irritating for the auditory person who needs quiet to listen to the words and mentally engage in internal dialogue about what he or she wishes to say. Kinesthetic people can be judged as introverted and over-sensitive because they attach great importance to their intuition and gut reaction. They make assumptions about how other people feel and relate to others as if their assumptions are facts. 

In order to be effective communicators we need to be aware of how we are constantly communicating, not just with words and body language, but by what we do and don’t do, by what we say and don’t say, by the messages we intend to communicate, and with a host of mainly unconscious non-verbal signals. 

What happens at the non-verbal level of communication has far more impact on how we relate than we realise. Men and women may have very different styles of communicating with words, but effective communicators understand that words play only a small but important part in how we connect emotionally and develop loving family relationships. 

Having an extensive vocabulary and a good command of language, and understanding gender difference will help you to become more articulate. But there is a world of difference between hearing the words “I love you” and the experience of a warm hug that communicates a reality that is beyond words. We can put words on a physical reaction – “I went weak at the knees when he looked at me” – but language is inadequate to describe our emotional feelings. 

There are no words to convey the depth of love and tenderness that can be communicated through eye contact. A loving glance will always communicate more than words can say. 

Carmel Wynne is a life and work skills coach and lives in Dublin. For more information visit www.carmelwynne.org 


Reprinted with permission 


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