Communications experts often extol the benefits of making good eye contact when talking to people.
“Eye contact is an incredibly powerful tool in conversations as it demonstrates understanding, respect and acknowledges that you are listening to the person speaking,” communications consultant and coach Amelia Reigstad told HuffPost. “If you are the one speaking, making eye contact with those in the room shows you are confident in what you are saying and that you want to build rapport.”
But not everyone is able to make eye contact while they’re speaking. There are those who find it too intimate or uncomfortable to lock eyes with others. And many people with autism spectrum disorder find it challenging or distressing due to processing issues and overstimulation.
“We place a lot of emphasis on eye contact, especially in American culture,” said psychotherapist Annette Nunez. “But you can have strong relational skills and not make eye contact. It isn’t everything. Treating people with kindness and respect is more important than directly looking somebody in the eye.”
If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who isn’t making eye contact, don’t fret. Below, Reigstad, Nunez and other experts share their advice for navigating this situation and fostering a positive interaction.
Don’t take it personally
Try not to be offended if someone isn’t making eye contact with you. There are many possible reasons for a lack of eye contact that have nothing to do with rudeness.
“Every situation has a different answer, from insecurity to boredom, to feeling as if they have nothing to offer to the conversation and are trying to avoid being asked a question,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.
“It’s important to realize lack of eye contact may have nothing ― or everything ― to do with you,” she added. “They may feel uncomfortable, shy, fearful, self-conscious or insecure. They may also be giving you a clear message that they are not interested in talking to you, or bored with the conversation, or don’t agree with something you are saying. Every situation has to be looked at in context.”
Someone may also be avoiding eye contact because they’re distracted by something in their life that’s unrelated to the conversation at hand. Or it can simply be a matter of different people having varying levels of comfort around locking eyes with someone.
This behavior may also be totally subconscious, said Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills ― and Leave a Positive Impression.”
“Just as a lot of us are unaware of our body language, a lot of people aren’t aware they’re not making eye contact,” she noted. “I tend to slouch, so I have to remind myself to stand up straight. Or some people have disabilities ― they may be visually impaired and can’t make eye contact with anyone.”
Foster cultural awareness around eye contact
“Not all cultures have the same norms around eye contact so it is important to keep an open mind as to why a person is not making eye contact,” said communication coach Jennifer Kammeyer, who teaches leadership communication at San Francisco State University.
“In many Asian cultures, it is disrespectful to make eye contact and respectful to show you are listening by keeping your head down just a bit and nodding ever so slightly,” she added. “I also find that in the American subculture of technology engineers and some scientists that eye contact is not perceived as necessary.”
If you know you will be interacting with a cross section of different cultures at a social or networking event, take time to do research about the norms around eye contact and other aspects of communication. Gottsman noted that this is “both a respectful and thoughtful gesture.”
If you suspect someone isn’t making eye contact for cultural reasons but you haven’t had the chance to do research, “use good judgment and follow their lead,” she added.
Act with empathy and kindness
“Regardless of reason, the best approach when in a conversation with someone not making eye contact is to always act with empathy and kindness, which may mean ignoring it and simply carrying on, could mean changing your own behavior, or could lead you to addressing it politely,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast.
Given how many variables might be involved, there’s no one answer, so use your judgment to determine the appropriate approach. But it’s always best to let compassion guide your actions.
“Try not to feel bad about yourself or take your frustration out on the other person such that you disengage with them,” Nunez said.
If the person is a friend or family member, you may feel comfortable enough addressing the issue head-on.
“You could say, ‘I sense a disconnect. Is there something on your mind?’ Or ‘Did I say something to offend you?’ or ‘Is there anything you want to share? Perhaps I could help you,’” Gottsman suggested. “Don’t attack them. It shouldn’t be combative, but address it in a compassionate or concerned manner.”
Accommodate their style
If you aren’t close with the other person, you may not be able to determine the reason behind their lack of eye contact.
“If it is not a cultural issue, it is typically a power issue where the person not making eye contact is not empowered in the moment,” Kammeyer said. “Either way, the wise communication strategy is not to force the issue, but rather accommodate the style. If someone is not making eye contact, use other techniques to gauge if they are engaged and understand what you are sharing.”
You may take a moment to pause and ask if they have any questions or need clarification on anything you’re saying. Otherwise, carry on the conversation as you would if they were making eye contact.
“Listen to them, validate what they are saying and smile. A smile can go a long way,” Reigstad said.
Fine’s guiding philosophy is to “assume the burden of other people’s comfort in conversation” ― meaning, you should be the one who adjusts your style to facilitate a good conversation, rather than expecting others to conform to your preferences.
“So instead of letting the lack of eye contact make me uneasy, I might see if there’s anything I can do to shift the conversation in some way to make them more comfortable,” she explained.
Fine’s approach echoes an article on the University of Edinburgh’s Development Autism Research Technology website: “If eye contact makes the neurotypical community feel more comfortable, maybe it is our responsibility instead to learn to adapt to the interactive style of autistic people.”
Switch the conversation setting
One way of shifting a conversation with no eye contact — or taking the emphasis off eye contact — is to change up the setting or physical dynamic.
“Move to the same side of the table and focus attention on a document or screen,” suggested Kammeyer. “Go to the whiteboard and start capturing ideas. Go for a walk together. What is essential is to switch from face-to-face to side-by-side, so eye contact is not relevant.”
“I might say, ‘Do you want to go sit down so we can go over these details?’” Fine said. “Or you can try to take someone to a better spot for light or place that’s more comfortable for them. But they may say ‘No, I’m fine,’ so there’s nothing more you can do.”
Make sure it’s not a one-sided conversation
“As a speaker, I make it a habit to ‘watch the room,’ making a mental note of how people are responding to what I have to say,” Gottsman explained. “When you find someone not making eye contact with you in a small group, or one-to-one, it may be something you are saying. Or, perhaps you are saying too much and not giving the other person a chance to speak and they are getting frustrated or losing interest.”
If you feel like you may be monopolizing the conversation, try to ask questions to give the other person more opportunities to speak.
Kammeyer advised asking questions that don’t have a yes or no answer to help the person you’re conversing with engage more in the discussion.
“Questions that start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ are good questions for this purpose,” she noted. “‘What do you think of that idea?’ is effective because it is open-ended and the person can answer without being ‘wrong.’ But ‘Do you like that idea?’ is not effective because it can be answered in one word that doesn’t give you very much new information.”
Have a meta conversation
Kammeyer also suggested having a “meta conversation” about the topic you need to discuss.
“Meta conversations are discussions about communication,” she said. “Ask the person their preferred mode of communication for achieving the objective at hand. Maybe they don’t think the topic even needs a conversation and would rather share what they know via email or Slack. Maybe they feel you interrupt them when you believe you are having a dynamic conversation. Asking directly gives you more information to work from for future interactions.”
With this approach, try to use a casual, non-combative tone to avoid creating tension.
Give them an out
If you suspect the other person isn’t making eye contact due to lack of engagement or distraction, give them the opportunity to diplomatically exit the conversation.
“If it’s someone you met while networking for business or socially but you don’t have a connection with them and they seem distracted looking over your shoulder, that’s an indicator they’re interested in moving on,” Gottsman noted. “They might be on a deadline or timeline or may need to meet some people before they leave.”
She advised closing the conversation politely by saying something like, “It was nice talking to you, I look forward to catching up with you at another time.”
“Revisit the conversation at another time if you’re still interested in building a relationship,” Gottsman recommended. “Sometimes we don’t start off strong when we’re meeting someone. We may dodge eye contact, and our greetings are weird right now because we aren’t hand-shaking or hugging. So there’s a whole list of things that could be going on, and that doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. It may just be off for that moment.”
We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.