A study headed by Stephen Janik and Rodney Wellens at the University of Miami in Florida found that 43 percent of the attention we focus on someone is devoted to their eyes, with the mouth running a poor second at 13 percent. The mouth and the eyes together account for 56 percent of our attention. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/he-speaks-she-speaks/201009/the-politics-eye-contact-gender-perspective Let’s look at some ways that eyes control conversations.
1. Longer gaze – an invitation to keep talking.
The person with the most power in the group usually sanctions the airtime taken up by the current talker with a supportive and encouraging gaze. When they want you to continue, they will keep their attention on you. When they want you to stop talking, they will break eye contact with you. This can be a great way to gauge how much information people really want from you and when it’s time to let others talk.
2. Approval-seeking gaze – looking at leaders in the group after speaking.
The person with the most power in the room will often be the one most looked at. If someone contributes to the group, they will often look to the leader when they finish. Sometimes this is seen as approval-seeking; sometimes it’s a signal to hand back the floor; whatever the reason behind the look, it signals that the most clout in the room is not from the person who just spoke – It’s from the person just looked at.
3. Broken Gaze – time to shut it down.
As we mentioned in point #1 above, when people want you to stop talking, they will break eye contact with you. It is a clear, nonverbal cue that it is time to shut it down.
4. No gaze – closing eyes for long stretches when talking.
Sometimes when people don’t like what they hear they close their eyes to shut out the message. This is called eye blocking. Eye blocking can also happen as a habit of communication where the person speaking blinks their eyes shut for long periods of time whilst they talk. This can be to help them think, shut out others, or perhaps focus their message. Regardless of the reason, the effect it has on the listener is often the same; it deters them from interrupting the person. When waiting for our turn to talk we often wait for the speaker to look at us. If they don’t look at us, they’re not signaling our turn, nor can they see our gestures to break into the conversation; so they continue to hold the floor.
Non-verbal communication is very powerful, and eye contact is the strongest form of nonverbal communication. Next time you’re in a meeting with a group of people, watch the eyes in the room. They will give you a lot of information and make you a more effective communicator.