Maintaining eye contact has long been considered an effective way of engaging a listener and thereby enhancing the persuasive power of the speaker's arguments. But leaders should be aware of new research showing that eye contact may actually make people less susceptible to persuasion, especially when they already disagree.
There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influencing tool. Business leaders, salespeople and many others have long been urged and trained to engage in eye contact with their audience – whether that is an individual customer or a convention of thousands. It has been taken as read that, by doing so, the listener(s) will pay greater attention to the speaker, will trust them more and be more likely to be persuaded by them.
The findings of this new research turn this belief on its head, showing that direct eye contact makes sceptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.
Lead researcher, Frances Chen, conducted studies while at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. Her findings are reported in an article co-authored with, among others, Julia Minson, assistant professor at Harvard Kennedy School.
To investigate the effects of eye contact in situations involving persuasion, Chen, Minson and colleagues utilized recently developed eye-tracking technology. They found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching a 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.
Spending more time looking at the speaker’s eyes was only associated with greater receptiveness to the speaker’s opinion among those participants who had already agreed with the speaker’s opinion on that issue.
A second experimental study confirmed these findings. Participants who were told to look at the speaker’s eyes displayed less of a shift in attitudes than did those participants who were told to look at the speaker’s mouth. The results showed that participants who looked at the speaker’s eyes were less receptive to the arguments and less open to interaction with the advocates of the opposing views, and were thus more difficult to persuade.
According to Minson, the findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it is more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations. So, while we might be tempted to make the demand, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” of a listener, this demand may have unintended consequences.
The researchers are planning to look at whether eye contact may be associated with certain patterns of brain activity, the release of stress hormones, and increases in heart rate during persuasion attempts. “Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes,” says Chen.
For now, leaders in all walks of life would be well advised to reconsider their approach to making eye contact with their audience, taking more account of who that audience is, whether it is likely already to be ‘on side’, and how easily it is likely to be influenced by their arguments. For leaders who find themselves in an adversarial negotiation, but seeking a resolution, fixing their gaze on their opponent may in fact be akin to waving a red flag to a bull.
Says Minson, “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.”
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