‘The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes’.
(Barack Obama 2008)
A quote from an address made over a decade ago now and yet resonates with us now more than ever.
In this onscreen ‘head and shoulders’ world, there are three things that have fundamentally changed about our eye contact:
It is Direct. It is completely different to the eye contact we experience in person. When we are in person, we have the access to an entire ‘palette’ of eye contact opportunities.
When are audience is looking directly at us on a screen, it can feel like we are being stared at, triggering an instant physiological ‘threat response’ that doesn’t happen to the same degree when we are in person.
Camera Off’ – not always, but often, there is this option when we communicate remotely. Increasingly, it is becoming the choice of the individual as to whether they have their camera on or off when engaging with this remote world.
When our camera is off, our remote experience is having an audience that is invisible to us. The ‘in person’ equivalent would be to close our eyes when speaking to our audience, or to create any environment where our audience are ‘unseen’.
My offer here is an explicit ‘Eye Contact Contract’ or…’ECC’:
An ECC allows your audience the opportunity to express their level of comfort when it comes to eye contact.
This way, you can find a middle ground right from the start that lessens the likelihood of any confusion/awkwardness during your communication.
All your future communications can only benefit from having contracted in this way.
There is a direct connection between how comfortable our audience is, and how truly present they can be.
When we give ourselves permission to share conversation about eye contact, we are maximising our audience comfort levels so that they can be as present with us as possible.
I like the quote below for its simplicity and relevance to all that we are experiencing when remote:
‘Eye contact is a fundamental aspect of nonverbal communication and therefore important for understanding human interaction.’
( Jongerius, C., Hessels, R.S., Romijn, J.A. et al. The Measurement of Eye Contact in Human Interactions: A Scoping Review. J Nonverbal Behav 44, 363–389 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-020-00333-3)
A significant part of my work is enabling people to practice authentic eye contact and to encourage the same in their audience.
As important, is that we give ourselves and others permission to look away from the screen at times too.
This is crucial if we are going to create a feeling of ‘being present’. Why?
…Because we all listen in different ways.
Understandably, the pressure to be always looking at the screen/camera when listening can be too much for some people.
And so, what happens…
Either their attention drops, or they find ways to purposefully disconnect from the present moment.
I look forward as always to hearing your thoughts below. Thank you for taking the time to read this.