Some people have no problem making eye contact one on one, however the dynamics of maintaining good eye contact when talking changes in a group setting, and in some cases, if you don’t adjust it for the group, even your best eye contact can backfire.
Avoid the mistake of making eye contact when speaking in group settings by only looking at one person. What happens as a result is the others in the group begin to feel like spectators. They are watching from the outside and not a part of the conversation. The smaller the group, the more excluded these spectators are likely to feel.
If you know how uncomfortable it feels to be left out of a conversation, then how could you be guilty of making this mistake when speaking in group settings? Following are three possible reasons:
1. You tend to make eye contact with the person you know the best in a group. I have seen this happen first hand. I was having lunch with two other women. One of the women only looked at the other when speaking. I felt like a total third wheel at that lunch with them. It was actually very unpleasant! However, she knew that other woman well, and she did not know me at all. Over time, she got to know me better. Fast forward a few months later, when she and I had lunch with a new third person, a woman she did not know well. This time, she only looked at me during the conversation, and excluded the newest woman. I then realized the reason why she had excluded me initially with eye contact. She didn’t intend to, but I felt excluded.
2. You are answering a question, and it makes sense to look at the person who asked the question. True, it makes sense to start out looking at them when answering a question. However, if your answer is more than a quick answer, start by looking at the person who asked you the question, and then look around at the others in the group so that they are included, also. Clients commonly ask me about this when they are in a professional setting such as a panel interview. Even in this setting, initiate eye contact with others on the panel while you are answering the question.
3. You look at only the person who looks the most engaged. This can feel like it makes the most sense. You are going to make eye contact with the person who is making eye contact back at you with a friendly and engaged expression on their face. However, keep in mind that just because someone does not have a pleasant expression on their face does not mean they are engaged. However, if you continue looking at only one person, you are sending a signal to the others that they have no reason to engage.
When you look at more than one person when speaking in a group setting, you are actively seeking eye contact with them. And by taking the initiative to seek eye contact, you are showing confidence and inclusivity.
Have you been on the receiving end of bad eye contact in a group setting? If so, I would love to hear about your experience! Share this article or video if you know of someone who could benefit.