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Why Eye Contact May Be Less Influential Than We Thought

Eye contact can diminish, not increase, influence.

We’ve all been told of the importance of eye contact as a way to make a powerful and influential impact on people. New research shows eye contact may have the opposite effect with some people.

Research by Frances Chen of the University of British Columbia conducted with her colleagues at the University of Freiberg in Germany, shows eye contact may make people actually more resistant to persuasion and influence, particularly if they already have a contrary perspective. “There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,” says Chen, “but our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.”

Chen and her colleagues used eye-tracking technology in two studies. The first showed the more time participants looked at the speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument. Looking at the speaker’s eyes was associated with greater receptiveness only if the speaker’s opinion agreed with the participant’s.  In the second experiment participants who were told to look at the speaker’s eyes displayed less of a shift in attitude than those were instructed to look at the speaker’s mouth.

Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-lead researcher of the studies argued that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation—trust in one context and intimidation in another.

This research flies in the face of much conventional wisdom and professional advice. For example, a communications-analytics company, Quantified Impressions, recommends people should be making eye contact 60-70% of the time to create a sense of emotional connection, with no reference to whether the people hold an agreeable or disagreeable perspective. Similarly, research by Image and Vision Computing recommends prolonged eye contact during a debate or disagreement can signal you’re standing your ground. This argument implies you will end up being more influential.

So the best advice might be that when you are talking to someone who disagrees with you, avoid eye contact, or at least prolonged eye contact.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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