Eye contact has long been seen as a key to strong professional relationships. Indeed such is the apparent appeal of face to face communications, it leads some to doubt the potential for digital conversations to ever make a suitably sized dent in how we talk to each other at work.
Some research from the University of British Columbia however casts some doubt on just how powerful eye contact can be.
“There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,” said lead researcher Frances Chen, of the University of British Columbia, who conducted the studies while at the University of Freiburg in Germany. “But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds — not more, as previously believed.”
The study saw researchers ask participants to watch a person deliver a speech, with eye tracking technology used to monitor their gaze. They found that the more time the participants spent looking at the speaker’s eyes, the less likely they were to be persuaded by the speaker.
Maintaining eye contact was however very effective at persuading people, just so long as they already agreed with what it was they were hearing. If opinions diverged, eye contact did nothing to change that.
Interestingly, speakers were found to be much more convincing however when people focused their gaze on their mouths rather than their eyes.
The researchers suggest that eye contact largely acts as a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, whereas in situations where there is more hostility or unfamiliarity it can come across as excessively aggressive or domineering.
Julia Minson, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-lead researcher of the study, said the findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it’s more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial circumstances, she said.
“Whether you’re a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you’re trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you,” co-researcher Julia Minson said.