During your childhood, did your parents ever say: “Look at me when I’m talking to you”? According to a recent study, that approach is not helpful if you are trying to persuade an unwilling listener, because people who are forced to make eye contact against their wishes become stubborn and harder to convince.
Of course, your parents didn’t want you to look at them to increase the persuasiveness of their argument. When the “look at me when I’m talking to you” line was used, persuasion wasn’t the goal. Instead, the context involved a different power equation. Your parents were getting information from you, and then they were laying down the law. They wanted you to look at them to be sure you were paying attention and to see whether you were telling the truth. If you were squirmy and shifty-eyed, they knew you were lying like a rug.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and it’s the truth. How many of us have sat in a meeting, exchanging quick glances and raised eyebrows with other attendees that spoke volumes about the inadvertent humor in the droning presentation? How many of us have withered under a father’s angry glare — Dad had a special look that was both cold and capable of melting diamonds, for example — or shriveled inside when a mother’s downcast eyes confirmed her terrible disappointment in your thoughtless actions? Whether it’s lying, or love, or lewd thoughts, boredom, or bitterness, or bewilderment, the eyes tell the tale.
I can’t imagine ever telling anyone, outside of the parent-child relationship, to look at me when I’m talking; it’s too much of an overt power play to ever use in talks between two adults. But I do try to keep and maintain eye contact, whether I’m speaking to one person or to a full room. How else am I supposed to know when their eyes glaze over?