Eye contact is one of the most effective forms of nonverbal communication. It indicates interest and attraction and helps build rapport in social interactions. Eye contact leads to meaningful connections because we like when people give us their visual attention.
And, most importantly, receiving eye contact changes your chemistry! Research finds eye contact boosts dopamine and oxytocin, two chemicals that have all kinds of positive effects.
How Much Eye Contact is Best?
British social psychologist Dr. Michael Argyle found that Westerners and Europeans tend to hold eye contact an average of 61 percent of the time, 41% while talking, and 75% while listening.
Some crucial takeaways on how you should make eye contact:
- You should NOT feel pressured to make 100% eye contact. In fact, 100% eye contact would be considered too much!
- The amount of eye contact you use changes based on whether you are speaking or listening. Looking away – up, down, or to the side when you think or process information is normal. In fact, as humans, we recognize that when someone is thinking deeply, they are likely to look away to gather their thoughts.
- Cultural Note: This research is focused mainly on Western and European cultures. Percentages might be different in your area of the world.
- Note for the neurodivergent community: People whose brains work differently, known as neurodivergent, can have difficulty with eye contact because of the overstimulation it creates. The above research did not look at the neurodivergent community. Hopefully, more research will come in this area!
We also make eye contact to read the social cues of others. Vanessa Van Edwards talks about eye contact as a critical cue for social decoding in her bestselling book, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication.
How to Make Great Natural Eye Contact
What is the sweet spot for how to make eye contact? Drs. Allen and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, summarize this well. They recommend holding eye contact for 60-70% of the conversation to build a good rapport and trust. But how can we do this expertly? Here are a few tips to make eye contact feel more natural:
Develop good mutuality
Good eye contact is based on the principle of “mutuality,” as identified by Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact. He said, “In order for eye contact to feel good, one person cannot impose his visual will on another; it is a shared experience. Perhaps eyes meet only for a second at first; one partner then tests the waters and tries a few seconds, and when that is met warmly, the pair can begin ramping up the eye contact together until they are locked in a beautiful dance of eyes and gazes.”
Here’s how to put this into action.
- Look at someone briefly and look away.
- Then look again.
- If you return your gaze, this signals they are willing to engage–like a handshake with the eyes.
Slowly switch between eyes
When talking to someone, have you ever tried to look into both eyes at once? It’s pretty challenging to do it and not look angry, overly intense, or downright creepy.
Instead, try looking at one eye at a time and then slowly looking at the other. Switching from one to the other casually maintains the connection and interest. If you change too rapidly or often, it might appear that you’re ping-ponging between them, so remember to move slowly and naturally. You can also try the triangle method.
Use the triangle method
Continual eye contact creates a connection, but looking in one place at a time can feel weird. Sometimes a rhythm naturally forms, but if it doesn’t, try the triangle method of looking from one eye to the other, to their mouth, and then back at the first eye. As you practice this, maintaining good eye contact should start to feel more natural.
Maintain good proximity
When you meet a person initially, you would probably not stand the same distance from them as if you were old friends. In the same way, you want to be careful about the intensity of your gaze with someone you’re not as familiar with.
To moderate the intimacy level, lean back or tilt your head to the side to add a bit of space between you and the person.
However, when conversing about something personal or intimate, you can lean in as you look into their eyes, giving your full attention.
Making and breaking eye contact can make a conversation more dynamic and engaging, according to a neuroscience study that looked at synchrony, when two speakers’ pupils dilate in sync during moments of “shared attention.”
Study co-author and professor Thalia Wheatley said, “Eye contact may usefully disrupt synchrony momentarily in order to allow for a new thought or idea.”
Feel free to pause contact by briefly looking away or placing your finger on your chin while looking toward the sky while you compose a thought.
Use the five-second rule
While maintaining eye contact can feel good, too much of a good thing can feel intense or awkward. Five seconds, or about the time it takes to say 12 words or a single sentence, feels suitable to most people. After that, look away for a moment and then back again. Try to avoid counting words in your head.
Remember that it’s quite normal to look away when recalling a name, gathering your thoughts, or deciding what to say next.
How to Break Eye Contact Non-Awkwardly
You can break eye contact naturally by incorporating different methods. Instead of quickly looking away, which can feel awkward, use your body language and hand gestures to look more natural. Try nodding, placing a hand on your heart or your conversation partner’s hand, clasping your hands together, or laughing (if appropriate).
When you break eye contact, the direction of your glance is important. If you look down, it may signal you’re feeling insecure, embarrassed, anxious, or even disingenuous.
It may also demonstrate submissiveness or be a cultural influence. In many Eastern cultures, making direct eye contact—especially with higher-ups—can be rude, so looking down is normal.
Looking sideways may be the best approach in many cases, but do so slowly. Darting eyes may signal shyness or nervousness. And glancing sideways with a furrowed brow may denote suspicion or critical feelings.
How to Increase Eye Contact
You can quickly and easily improve eye contact with time and practice.
First, give yourself the motivation to make eye contact. When we look at someone, we can better read their cues. Tell yourself to make eye contact not only because it is good for rapport but also to search for information:
- To better decode facial expressions
- To see if the other person wants to make eye contact with you
- To accurately read nonverbal cues
You can also start by increasing your connection with those closest to you. Make a game out of it.
First, observe how much you spend looking into your partner’s eyes during a typical day. Do you look into each other’s eyes when you are talking, or are you both doing other things like looking at your phones?
Once you know what your baseline is, try to make more contact and observe how that feels intentionally. When that is comfortable, practice with other colleagues and friends. Then move on to strangers.
Because eye contact is a critical component of nonverbal communication, you’ll want to learn how to incorporate it in all of life’s situations. Here are 12 scenarios to guide you.
While passing people on the street
According to Ellsberg, the key to eye contact with strangers is to appear non-threatening.
- First, keep your facial expression neutral and your gaze soft with relaxed eyes and facial muscles.
- Second, wait until the person is about 4-5 paces from you. You don’t want to appear as if you’re staring from far away.
- Finally, briefly look into their eyes for a quick moment, long enough to see their eye color but not too long that it becomes uncomfortable.
Once you feel confident, practice making eye contact with co-workers, people you encounter at the gym, and strangers on the street. Soon you’ll be an eye contact ninja.
Learn everything you need to know about decoding eyes through 34 different cues.
In meetings around a conference table
When sitting at a conference table, make eye contact with each person, but vary how you do it instead of moving in a continuous clockwise or counterclockwise motion. Maintain contact with someone, but mix it up throughout the meeting.
Make sure you don’t prioritize those who are engaged and forget the ones who are less engaged. If you’re standing, use movement to close the gap and make more intimate eye contact with individual members of your audience.
In Zoom meetings
To connect on Zoom, you first need to have your camera on with good lighting. When speaking, look at the device’s camera, even if it’s a little pinhole. This will help you appear as if you’re looking into the eyes of the person on the other end.
Learn more about how to master the Zoom meeting with these 16 Amazing Tips to Look Good on Zoom and Have Better Videos.
In small group presentations
When speaking from the front of the room or on stage, imagine a triangle over the audience. Look from the bottom left to right and then to the top. Occasionally change direction or flip the triangle to talk to multiple audience members.
Want to know more? Learn more about how to read people’s eye movements here.
When giving employee feedback
Sitting face-to-face can be intimidating, so placing your chair at an angle can help the conversation feel less conversational. Choose to sit with your writing hand closer to the person. This angle’s position makes it more natural to move your gaze between the employee’s eyes and your notes or paper.
In a job interview
The level of eye contact is second only to your appearance in terms of
nonverbal communication in a job interview. So be intentional about looking directly at the interviewer.
One study found that the interviewers were “more likely to hire and rate as credible and attractive interviewees who maintained a normal or high degree of gaze than those who averted gaze.”
When you want buy-in
Make eye contact with everyone in the room to demonstrate that you value everyone. Don’t just connect with the decision-maker or CEO. This reassures the decision-maker and the rest of the team that you see and respect their role in the meeting.
When speaking to a large group
Some of the most compelling TED talks are those where the speakers make eye contact with specific faces in the crowd and talk directly to them, making everyone watching feel like they genuinely matter.
They typically look to people in the first few rows because they may be the only faces the speaker can see, depending on the stage lighting. In addition to glancing at these faces, be sure to sweep your eyes out into the larger audience periodically.
When Dr. Brene Brown gave her TED Talk, she used a connection to help calm her nerves and relate to the audience. She said, “When I finally walked onto the stage, the first thing I did was make eye contact with several people in the audience. I asked the stage managers to bring up the houselights so I could see people. I needed to feel connected.”
Learn the 5 Secrets of a Successful Ted Talk for other ways to convey your message effectively.
When speaking with your boss
Making eye contact with someone in authority can feel intimidating, but you’ll want to convey confidence without appearing threatening. Take a deep breath and match your eye contact to theirs. Shift your gaze slowly. If you’re taking notes, you can look down at them to recenter yourself briefly before making eye contact again.
When you want to appear powerful
When you make more eye contact when speaking than listening, it is called visual dominance. This exudes power and can be intimidating to the listener. People with higher status tend to make more eye contact when speaking and less eye contact when listening. Those with lower status do the opposite, which conveys submission.
However, it’s best to balance eye contact—whether speaking or listening—to connect with someone truly. This can make the other person feel like they’re the most important person in the room.
When you want to connect with your crush
When you’re attracted to someone (or they are attracted to you), you’ll subconsciously try to engage in lots of mutual eye contact. You’ll do it because you’re interested in them and what they’re saying.
If you’re checking out a stranger from across the room, look to see if he/she looks back. Don’t give up at once glance, but look two, three, or even four times. Once you have caught their eye, gaze and smile back warmly (but not creepily!).
In one study of 48 unacquainted singles, pairs who gazed into each other’s eyes reported significantly higher feelings of affection. This means that just by making eye contact, you can increase your chances of a love match.
Pro Tip: If you’re trying to flirt with a man, it will likely take a few tries for him to catch on. A study on eye gaze found that most men usually required three separate gaze signals to “get” that they are being flirted with, and sometimes even up to 5 for really slow men!
Read How to Flirt: 8 Tips to Make You The Master at Flirting to find out how the head tilt and the eyebrow flash can up your flirting game.
When you’re in love
When you have a deeper relationship with a person, you naturally look at each other more often. Research found that two people in conversation usually make eye contact anywhere from 30-60% of the time. But couples in love look at each other 75% of the time during conversation and are slower to look away from each other when interrupted.
How Eye Gaze Deepens Emotional Connection
Eye gazing takes eye contact to the next level. Eye gazing is looking into someone’s eyes for an extended amount of time. It’s powerful and intimate and, for some, replicates the loving bond between a mother and child.
First, eye gazing increases the opportunity for a deeper connection.
- A 2017 study of 35 university students determined that direct gazing is associated with what’s known as self-other merging. Self-merging reduces the boundaries between people, creating a feeling of oneness and connection.
- Another study found that direct gazing increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in processing facial cues and emotions.
Second, gazing increases intimacy.
Researchers found that strangers who looked into each other’s eyes for 2 minutes experienced mutual feelings of love.
Third, gazing increases attractiveness.
One study found that the longer someone stared at a face, the more attracted they became to it. And another study of 32 males found that they perceived female faces with a direct gaze as more attractive than those with an averted gaze.
How to start eye gazing:
- Sit in a comfortable position and face your partner. Acknowledge if this feels awkward to break the ice and hold hands or touch if this feels comfortable.
- Set a timer for one minute (or gauge the time). Look into your partner’s eyes.
- Breathe deeply as you softly look into their eyes. It’s okay to blink but try not to look away.
- Break your gaze when the time’s up.
Practice this over time and increase the length of eye contact as it becomes more comfortable.
Why Someone Might Avoid Eye Contact
A person may feel uncomfortable looking another in the eyes, and some reasons are listed below.
Let’s face it. Sometimes, eye contact can be overwhelming. A recent experiment conducted in Japan suggests that eye contact draws on the same mental resources used for complex tasks, so trying to maintain eye contact can impede reasoning. In this case, the break in eye contact comes not from emotion but from the need to preserve cognitive resources. Eye contact can deplete your mental bandwidth.
Eye contact can also be emotionally challenging and bring up shame, embarrassment, and anxiety. Many with social anxiety disorders (SAD) avoid eye contact because it triggers feelings of being scrutinized. A Gaze Anxiety Rating Scale (GARS) was established as an assessment measurement because it’s difficult for some people.
Cultural plays a role in the way people make eye contact.
In the United States, people typically show attentiveness through eye contact. However, a 2013 study found that “individuals from an East Asian culture perceive another’s face as being angrier, unapproachable, and unpleasant when making eye contact compared to individuals from a Western European culture.”
Another study found that Japanese individuals exhibited less eye contact than individuals from Western European or North American cultures. Japanese and Navajo cultures, in particular, consider making direct eye contact with strangers, elders, and people of the opposite sex rude.
People whose brains work differently, known as neurodivergent, can have difficulty with eye contact because of the overstimulation it creates. Be gentle and gracious about making assumptions about why someone doesn’t make eye contact.
How to Handle People Who Don’t Make Eye Contact
Above all, treat others with kindness and compassion. If someone isn’t looking at you, try not to take their lack of contact personally. Assume that the reason has nothing to do with you or what you’re saying.
If you feel comfortable with the person, you may want to pause and ask if they have questions or need clarification on what you’re saying. If not, continue with what you were saying and act as if they are making eye contact.
A special note on phubbers
Are you familiar with phubbing? It’s when you’re talking with someone, and suddenly they pull out their phone and direct their attention to you. Nearly 32 percent of people reported being phubbed 2-3 times daily! Read more about what it is and how to deal with it in Phubbing: How to Deal with People Who Won’t Make Eye Contact.
Tips for Eye Contact Mastery
Before beginning a conversation, make eye contact to set the interaction off on a good foot:
- Use the 50/70 rule. Maintain eye contact 50% of the time when speaking and 70% when listening.
- Hold eye contact. Practice holding eye contact for 60–80% of the conversation to build a good rapport. Convey interest without being creepy.
- Blink. Don’t be afraid to blink. It’s perfectly natural, so let your eyes do what they need to without overthinking it.
- 4-5 seconds. Look at the person for 4–5 seconds before breaking eye contact. One strategy for knowing the appropriate length is to note the person’s eye color, which typically takes 4-5 seconds.
- Soften your gaze. Allow the muscles of your eyes to relax. Your view will become slightly unfocused, and your face will soften, making you appear more relaxed and genuine.
- Look at one eye at a time. It’s pretty challenging to look at both eyes simultaneously without making an intense or unpleasant face. Instead, try looking at one eye at a time and then slowly looking at the other.
- Use the triangle method. Pretend there is an inverted triangle on the face of the person you are conversing with. During the conversation, move between each eye and the mouth. Changing your gaze will show you’re engaged in the conversation.
Crack The Code on Facial Expressions
The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.
In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.
Don’t spend another day living in the dark.
Want more body language goodness? Learn everything you need to know about How to Read Someone’s Eyes!