Body language is a powerful communication medium. What we do with our heads, our hands and even our body affects the message we’re sending. We all know that crossed arms appear to others as ‘closed’; just as lots of smiles and head nods appear warm and engaging. However most people don't realise that what we do with our eyes has an equally powerful impact.
Here are 3 ways eye gaze can control a conversation:
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 makes a contribution 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/ 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, to shut out others, or perhaps to 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 signally our turn, nor can they see our gestures to break into the conversation; so they continue to hold the floor.
Next time you’re in a meeting with a group of people watch their eye gazing behaviour; where they look, how they look and for how long they look. It will give you a lot of information about who’s really controlling the conversation.
Anneli is an accomplished leadership speaker, mentor and co-author of Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders. She is currently working on her next book: ‘Decoding Resistance: The real reason people won’t do what you want’, a practical guide for increasing buy-in, reducing push back and navigating the daily barriers that impact influence, engagement and change.
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