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The Good and bad of Eye Contact

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Is eye contact a good thing or a bad thing? Some will answer by saying it depends upon the person’s cultural background as Westerners value sustained eye contact while Middle Easterners and/or Asians will view it as inappropriate. Others will answer by saying it depends on which study is under discussion.

I say this because I came across a study issued as a press release on October 2, 2013 in "Minds for Business" entitled "Eye Contact May Make People More Resistant to Persuasion" by Anna Mikulak. As the title suggests, and contrary to popular Western cultural belief, "… new research shows that eye contact may actually make people more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree. " (Id.) (Emphasis original.)

Researcher Frances S. Chen, conducting the study at the University of Freiburg, Germany used eye tracking technology to make his findings. The participants of the study were told to look at a speaker’s eyes while watching a video. What he learned was that

"… The more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching the video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument-that is, participants’ attitudes on various controversial issues shifted less as they spent more time focusing on the speaker’s eyes." (Id.) (Emphasis original.)

According to co-researcher Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, this research shows that "…eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation." (Id.)

So, although most of us in the United States think it is a very good thing to make eye contact in an effort to persuade someone to our point of view, this research shows otherwise. Making eye contact can backfire: rather than assisting in persuading someone to your point of view, it just may make her more resistant to it!

But, as a NPR article points out, this latter proposition makes sense: any parent will tell you about the many times her child has shifted her eyes away when the conversation is about something the child should not have done. Or, any dog trainer will tell you that the best way to get a dog to calm down is to NOT make eye contact. Shifting the eyes away is simply an avoidance technique. (Id.)

In sum, it is all about the emotional state that a person may be in, and the eyes are truly a window into that emotional state.

So, the next time you find yourself in a negotiation, view "eye contact" not as a "given" but as another tool in the toolbox and ask yourself- should I use it or not, and if so, when and for how long? It’s all about strategy!

…Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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