Here’s why it’s so difficult to maintain consistent eye contact during conversation

Looking somebody in the eye distracts our brains, preventing us from finding appropriate words. This is why we find it hard to maintain eye contact during conversation.

Nov 7, 2019 |
3 min read

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Social cues can be tricky to manage. Etiquette dictates that we are supposed to look people in the eye when we speak to them. Supposedly, this makes our words appear more trustworthy and confident.

The eyes are also referred to as the windows to the soul, ensuring that we tell a great deal about how somebody is feeling by peering into them. Past studies have claimed that we look into each other’s eyes to gain information.

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to eye contact, though. Making eye contact is simple, but maintaining it is hard. Looking somebody in the eye can be a real balancing act.

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Avoiding eye contact at all makes us look shifty. Staring somebody in the eye without ever looking away can be a little intimidating, though. It’s commonly believed that looking somebody in the eye for ten straight minutes sparks a hallucinogenic response.

Why is it so hard to maintain eye contact throughout a conversation?

It turns out that there is a scientific explanation for difficulty maintaining eye contact in conversation. New research has discovered that our brains become distracted and confused while we look into somebody’s eyes.

Essentially, we cannot focus on what somebody is saying and find the appropriate words to respond with. This is especially prominent when we’re trying to think up new or unique words to use. This goes some way to explaining why we tend to get flustered and trip over our words when maintaining eye contact in a high-pressure situation, such as a job interview.

The study in question unfolded at Japan’s Kyoto University. 26 volunteers were invited to stare into the eyes of CGI faces while playing word association games. They then played the same games without eye contact – the computer images looked away from the human players. All of the participants found this much easier.

Perhaps there was an element of the uncanny valley about this. Anybody can become a little disconcerted by the lifelike-but-unreal nature of computer-generated imagery. The sample size was also just 26, so naturally, this does not apply to everybody. The study certainly goes some way to explaining why it’s so tricky to maintain eye contact, though.

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Are there other explanations for trouble with eye contact?

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There are many reasons why maintaining eye contact is so tricky. Every individual that you meet may have their own reasons. For example, old-fashioned shyness and lack of confidence could always be at the root of the behavior.

A medical explanation is also a possibility. Somebody that lives with social anxiety disorder will struggle to maintain eye contact. For somebody with SAD, eye contact is a triggering behavior. It overloads the amygdala and sparks a panic attack.

Struggling to maintain eye contact has also been linked to autism. It’s essentially painful for somebody with autism to look you in the eye. Their brains become overloaded with stimulation.

Of course, it’s also possible that somebody is just being rude. Not everybody follows the rules and regulations of unwritten social contracts. Before writing somebody off as obnoxious or rude, however, try to consider their perspective.

How to overcome difficulty in maintaining eye contact

As a rule, you should look somebody in the eye for roughly half the time that you are speaking to them. If you are listening to somebody, aim to look into their eyes, 70% of the time. If you’re keen to improve your eye contact, follow these steps.

  • Prepare your opening conversational gambit before you approach somebody. Even if it’s just a greeting, have an idea of what you’ll say to break the ice.
  • Lock eyes with somebody before speaking. It becomes much harder to find the appropriate words if you start speaking, then looking into their eyes.
  • Periodically break the eye contact. Once every five seconds or so is ideal.
  • Don’t look away completely. Just re-avert your gaze to another part of the person’s face. Do this slowly, too. Flickering your eyes at speed makes you look jittery.
  • Every once in a while, completely break the eye contact to make a gesture. A nod or shake of the head is fine. After this, you can start the process again.

Obviously, you shouldn’t be robotic in your approach to eye contact. The whole idea behind the concept of eye contact is to improve and forge a human connection. By taking these small steps, however, you can gradually build your confidence.

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