For someone who struggles with shyness or social anxieties, or just wishes to get better at meeting and connecting with people, the power of good eye contact can not be underestimated.
Good eye contact is an important factor in people’s first impression of you. It can make you come across as likable, positive, strong, confident, or shifty, creepy, insecure. Just pay attention to how you react to people’s (lack of) eye contact the next time you’re out and meet people.
The purpose of this article is to outline a few exercises that will particularly help you if you have problems establishing or holding eye contact, or just feel you want to learn to appear more confident and approachable.
Improving eye contact is best done through “gradual exposure”, where you attempt to improve bit by bit and get used to the change over time. Going “all out” and forcing yourself to do things perfectly from day one is not helpful, as it is likely to be extremely hard to sustain if you feel anxious about it, and may instead create an aversion.
These exercises are meant to allow you to start gently, and work your way up to better and stronger eye contact over time without getting too intense.
If you find giving eye contact particularly hard, for example, if you find yourself generally jerking your head away to break eye contact immediately when you notice, and find it particularly difficult, you may want to set fixed times when you practice initially. Do try to improve your eye contact at all times, but keep these fixed times in your diary and set an alarm. Give yourself no way of forgetting or otherwise making an excuse for not going outside to practice, or chances are you will create avoidance patterns – ways of justifying to yourself why you are not dealing with this problem.
Exercise 1: On the street
To begin with, simply walk around with just one goal: Try to meet the eyes of as many people as possible over whatever amount of time you set aside for your initial exercise – 30 minutes to an hour is a suitable time to start with.
Consider your “audience”: Areas, where most people are rushing to/from work, are not great. A shopping street or a park is a better bet.
A common objection to this is “but if I keep eye contact for X seconds” it will seem creepy. This is an excuse created by your fears. Remember that if you keep eye contact for whatever amount of time, they are keeping eye contact for the same amount of time.
Shy or anxious people often forget this, and it comes across as nervous and insecure at best. Shifty and unreliable at worst.
Do, of course, pay attention to the situation – don’t force eye contact with someone who seems angry or scared, or who scare you. There’s no need to antagonize people. But be aware of when you have a genuine reason to think you need to break eye contact and when it is driven by your anxieties.
Once you can do this fairly regularly, repeat, but with people of the opposite sex, when he/she looks away, look away slightly too, but keep an eye on them peripherally, and see if you can “catch them looking”. If they look back at you, catch their eye again and smile. Hold eye contact again.
Repeat this exercise until you can hold eye contact the second time for at least 10 seconds when you catch the other person looking. Remember to soften your facial expression and pull into a smile.
Exercise 2: Shop assistants
This is an easy one: Whenever you go to a till have the money ready so that you can keep eye contact instead of fumbling with your wallet. If you can make yourself do it, say at least “How are you?” and pause, to make it clear you care about the response rather than is just making a pleasantry. Hold eye contact and smile.
Break eye contact briefly as needed, but make a point to always look up and get eye contact again when you can. E.g. while your card is being authorized, or after you’ve put your stuff in the bag.
Get eye contact before leaving and say “have a nice day” or similar. Avoid “you too” in response if the person says “have a nice day” to you first. Instead repeat it.
You may wonder what this has to do with eye contact. The reason for focusing on this type of exchange is that we often “automate them” entirely and don’t pay attention to the other person.
If you carry this out, and pay attention to the feeling you put behind the words, and the pacing, and look carefully at the other person, you will notice a profound change in your daily interactions if you previously have not given great eye contact.
In terms of getting confident about strong eye contact, this is a gold mine: It gives you extremely positive feedback. Just don’t get complacent and let this be the only situation you improve in (this is why this is not the first exercise, though you can certainly do it in parallel with the first one).
Exercise 3: Flirt by signaling a shared conspiracy
First, some of the suggestions in this exercise may come across as cheesy or cartoonish. Keep in mind that the purpose is not particularly to seduce anyone, but to become more flexible and confident about experimenting with eye contact and associated body language.
Secondly, it is all in the delivery and this is a major takeaway. The suggestions below can be carried out in ways ranging from creepy, to hilariously comical, to seductive and flirty. You’ll likely miscalibrate to begin with. No matter. At worst a stranger will think you’re an idiot, and part of what you need to come to terms with is that this does not matter. What are the consequences?
This exercise is based on the assumption that you have problems approaching a stranger you may find attractive and starting a conversation. If you are able to do that, then do that (while holding eye contact!) instead of this exercise. But you have problems with basic eye contact and have read this far, chances are you have problems with this too.
Silent body language signals are a key component of flirting, and both men and women are horribly bad at it. You may find as you get better at reading people, that women flirt or think they flirt with men all the time, even when it means nothing. But most men are totally oblivious to women’s attempts at flirting until they get really blatant. As such, it may come as a revelation just how far you can take these before the other person even signals that they’ve noticed.
Flirting through body language is a playful way both of having fun even when nothing will ever come of it, and of creating increasing attraction that you will benefit from as your confidence increases. For women there’s the unfortunate caveat that you may want to be somewhat more careful in what signals you send to men to avoid unwanted further attention.
Over time you will find your confidence increasing, and you can focus more on adjusting what you do in order to elicit more positive responses, but remember that this is not a replacement for actually trying to push yourself into going over and talking to a person that seems interesting to you. It is just a stepping stone.
As for the other exercises, write down how long you could do it, what you managed to do, the reaction you got, how it made you feel etc. Also write down your feelings if you failed to do any of these. Re-read your notes and use them as a basis for aiming to do a bit better each time.
Keep doing this until you can elicit reactions from other people on a regular basis. E.g. smiles, making the other person look embarrassed enough to go red and look down, or copy what you are doing, etc.
Keep at it, and your improved eye contact will soon make other people see you in a totally different light.