“I have the statement you asked for. A goal of effective business communication is to make an impact.” Receiving no response, I repeated, “A goal of effective business communication is to make an impact.”
“I heard you the first time.”
“I nodded my head.”
“Your head was down. You were texting. You were texting on your Blackberry.”
“I heard you the first time.”
“I nodded my head—a bit.”
Common scenario? Yes, all too. Not only is direct eye contact a must for effective communication, it’s one of the qualities of being an effective leader. The two—effective communication and leadership skills—walk hand-in-hand.
It’s true with adults, and it’s true with babies. According to a 1996 Canadian study of three- to six-month-old infants, smiling in infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed. We respond to eye contact, because it confers meaning.
In the stories associated with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, one firefighter wrote of the importance he learned to ensure he made direct eye contact each morning with his family, not knowing if it might be their last.
Communications coach Carmine Gallo retells this story in a piece he wrote for BusinessWeek.com that illustrates how attention and impact are so closely tied:
The other week I asked a newspaper reporter who he considered the most inspiring person he had ever met. He answered Bill Clinton without hesitation. When I asked him why, this reporter told me he had met Clinton after the former President gave a speech in South Africa. According to the reporter, “Clinton looked me in the eyes and seemed to have a genuine interest in what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He made me feel like the most important person in the room at the time, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was standing right next to us!”
In business, one must be aware of cultural differences. Andrews University professor Charles H. Tidewell outlines some generalities on eye-contact in a course he teaches on intercultural business communications:
In USA, eye contact indicates: degree of attention or interest, influences attitude change or persuasion, regulates interaction, communicates emotion, defines power and status, and has a central role in managing impressions of others.
Arabic cultures make prolonged eye contact—they believe it shows interest and helps them understand the truthfulness of the other person. (A person who doesn’t reciprocate is seen as untrustworthy)
Japan, Africa, Latin American, Caribbean—avoid eye contact to show respect.
However, there is a secondary consideration regarding eye contact between the sexes where, according to Brighthub.com editor Rebecca Scudder, “Middle Eastern cultures, largely Muslim, have strict rules regarding eye contact between the sexes; these rules are connected to religious laws about appropriateness. Only a brief moment of eye contact would be permitted between a man and a woman, if at all.”
But, back in the U.S., two lovers linger over a coffee holding fast each other’s gaze. They don’t need to say a word.
Direct eye contact confers attention and respect. It says much, without saying a word . . . in your professional life, as in your personal life.