Eye contact can be tricky. Too much, and you can appear intense or intimidating. Too little, and you can appear lacking in confidence or shifty. In western cultures, eye contact is a sign of confidence. And who doesn’t want to appear and feel more self-confident?
What is the right amount? Research shows that the ‘right’ amount of eye contact differs when speaking versus listening. When speaking, you should maintain eye contact approximately 50% of the time. Not only are others receiving your verbal energy through what you’re saying, but they are also having to receive your non-verbal energy through eye contact, and both can be a lot to take in—especially for introverts! The percentage of the right amount of eye contact increases to 70% when you’re listening. This is because you’re NOT talking, so you want to give the speaker your attention non-verbally.
How long do you make eye contact before breaking it? The general rule is four to five seconds. In a study by Royal Society Open Science, researchers asked a group of approximately 500 volunteers to watch a video of an actor staring out from a screen and press a button if their gazes met for an uncomfortably long or short amount of time. On average, participants had a “preferred gaze duration” of 3.3 seconds, give or take 0.7 seconds. Keep in mind, however, that this study was based on only eye contact and not combined with conversation with another person. There are ways to break eye contact with confidence. When you do look away, look up or to the side rather than down. Looking down signifies a lack of confidence.
Here is a related article on how to break eye contact with confidence: https://www.griffdevelopment.com/2022/04/26/how-to-break-eye-contact-with-confidence/
Warm Versus Cold eye Contact: When you initiate or maintain eye contact, you want it to be warm and friendly versus cold and glaring. To do this, make sure you also have a pleasant facial expression, as that will automatically warm up your eye contact. Additionally, if you think positive thoughts about the other person, your eye contact will exude warmth.
Where To Focus: Some people wonder where to focus their eye contact so that it does not feel overwhelming to themselves and the receiver. You can focus on an imaginary triangle of the other person’s face, from between their eyes down to their nose. This will give the appearance to the other person that you are making good eye contact without being too intense.
If You Struggle With Eye Contact: In his book, Shyness, psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes that half of people who are shy report that they find it difficult or impossible to make eye contact. If you are one who struggles with it, practice it with strangers. Even if you have to practice outside while wearing sunglasses! Like anything, practice will make it less intimidating or uncomfortable over time.