by Marsha Hunter
In an individual coaching, a young lawyer told me he’d been criticized for having poor eye contact with witnesses and judges. This affable Asian-American went on to describe his family’s cultural deference to superiors, how they show respect for elders by avoiding their direct gaze, and the careful attention they pay to always being polite. In his family, eye contact could be jarring and rude. Watching his trial skills video, we could see him begin a question, and make one second of eye contact before looking away. His head bobbed randomly and his eyes flicked back and forth as he tried to find something to focus on. He held his hands in the classic “fig leaf” resting position in front of his body. He looked and sounded uncomfortable.
Eye contact triggers our adrenaline fight-or-flight response, which is why it can be difficult for some to overcome a strong reluctance to “look the beast in the eye.” For others like my Asian-American friend, an ingrained cultural habit stands in the way.
When the topic of eye contact comes up in our classes, there are those who espouse a mediocre, half-baked solution: look above the heads of a listener or large audience, or look at people’s foreheads, not their eyes. There was a time when we allowed that in our classes and coachings, but not any more. It isn’t fair to listeners. And, there is scientific evidence verifying that the longer the eye contact, the better. Looking longer at your conversational partner can actually calm you down and increase your confidence.
While most of us call it “eye contact,” cognitive psychologists call it “visual attention.” Sports psychologists call it “aiming behavior and performance.” Fascinating research into an area called Quiet Eye training can help give you confidence while speaking.
Quiet Eye training teaches specific attentional control; that is, when to look, where to look, and how long to look. It integrates gaze control in a specific, repeatable pre-performance routine. Researchers use an eye-tracking device to analyze where a golfer is looking in the seconds leading up to a putt, or how long a soccer penalty taker fixes her gaze before kicking, or what a rock climber looks at during the very last second before moving his foot. Quiet Eye studies can achieve reliable results because the physical measurements are precise and the equipment is tracking objective measurements of eye movement.
So far, results of Quiet Eye training have been extremely promising. One study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2012, soccer penalty takers were more accurate, more confident, and less likely to choke. When the athletes “quieted” their eyes and looked longer at the spot they wanted to hit when they kicked the ball, they made more penalty points. Even better, they were sure they could do it. By practicing longer gazes at something specific, their confidence increased. Because they had been more successful in practice, they performed better under pressure. Find the article is here.
Likewise, when we gaze longer at a specific thing—the left side of a golf ball on a tee, the tennis ball in its trajectory toward you, or the eyes of the Chief Justice—we stay focused on the task at hand, and we are more confident we can accomplish it. Conversely, we prevent the more typical “unquiet eye” of nerves and performance anxiety, in which our eyes flit back and forth quickly, blurring our focus on the proper goal.
What exactly should you focus on? The eyes of the person you are addressing. Take a second or two before you speak to make eye contact. It may feel unfamiliar and too sustained, but remember science is on your side. Take a comfortable, refreshing breath as your gaze meets your listener’s eyes. It might help to call them by name. Your pre-performance routine might look like this:
It is your turn to speak, and all eyes are on you.
1. Look at the person you will address, and make eye contact.
2. While holding that eye contact, take a deep, comfortable breath.
3. Begin speaking: “Ms. Masoner…..Mr. Chief Justice…..Juan, etc.”
4. Begin gesturing as you choose your words.
5. Stay disciplined, and do not look down at your notes while you are talking.
Notes are a special trap for lawyers, who often have extensive notes in court or at meetings. Allowing your eyes to flit from page to people and back to a page of notes again keeps you unfocused. We could design a Quiet Eye study for lawyers who use notes, so great are the hazards. When you need to look at your notes, stop talking and look at them carefully. Then look up, make eye contact, and continue speaking.
Back to the Asian-American lawyer with eye contact issues. Once he saw himself on video, we spent about ten minutes working on maintaining that Quiet Eye attentional gaze. When I saw him two days later in bench trials, he was completely focused on the witnesses and judges, he was thinking clearly, and speaking well. Not everyone can cure habits so quickly. This attorney was exceptional in that regard, and he proves it is possible to make stylistic changes in short order.
Talk to yourself and say, “I’m going to make sustained eye contact with my listener(s) from the very first words out of my mouth.” Quiet your eyes and feel more confident.
We’ve written about eye contact before, with a different focus, here.