The Role of Eye Contact During Interpersonal Communication

Written By: Reid
May 01, 2000

When average people are asked about nonverbal communication, most will mention eye contact. The eyes are considered "the windows of the soul" and The Eagles warned that, "you can't hide your lying eyes." When Judge Judy detects possible deception, she admonishes the witness to look her in the eyes. Effective communicators learn not only how to read the meaning of another person's eye contact, but also to use their own eye contact to influence other people. This field of study is referred to as gaze and mutual gaze. Interestingly, of all possible nonverbal behaviors studied, eye contact is generally least influenced through psychophysiological processes, but rather is a learned response depending on societal rules. Furthermore, not all societies teach the same rules. The following discussion applies generally to western culture.

Breaks of Gaze

Consider that you are attending a seminar and the instructor asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class to demonstrate a principle. If you do not want to be called upon, your eyes will immediately go down to the table top. This unconscious drop of gaze sends the message of shame, guilt or embarrassment. In other situations, for example when a clergyman expresses his condolences at the passing of a loved one, a drop of gaze signals sympathy and compassion. Neurolinguistically, a downward break of gaze indicates that emotional centers of the brain are being accessed.

Obviously, when an investigator is interviewing a suspect, victim or witness, unconscious downward breaks of gaze may send the unwanted message, "I am uncomfortable asking you these questions." To instill confidence and credibility, it is important that a speaker maintain eye contact when addressing another person. However, during an interrogation when the investigator is displaying sympathy and compassion toward the suspect's unfortunate situation, a downward break of gaze may greatly enhance the investigator's sincerity. Similarly, during an interrogation, the suspect whose eyes drop downward often means that the suspect is experiencing remorse and guilt. This can be a key behavior that the suspect is on the verge of confessing.

A different meaning is attached when the eyes break gaze to the side or upward. Under this circumstance, the subject may be recalling factual information, forming an opinion, editing unnecessary information from a response or fabricating an answer. Such breaks of gaze should be expected from a truthful suspect who is asked a hypothetical question, or one that requires long term memory. As an example, consider two suspects who were asked the following question concerning an alibi where they both claimed that two weeks ago they were home alone on the night of the crime. "Did you receive any telephone calls that evening?" The first suspect, without breaking gaze responds, "No one called at all." The second suspect, after breaking gaze and delaying slightly, responds, "No one called at all." Even though their verbal responses were the same, the second suspect's response is more credible because the question requires accessing memory and, thus, a break of gaze would be appropriate.

Mutual Gaze

When two people are conversing about a topic of mutual interest the normal level of eye-to-eye contact is between 30 - 60% of the time. This is referred to as mutual gaze. When interacting with a speaker, the listener's eyes generally focus on the speaker's mouth. A conscientious communicator will recognize when the other person raises his gaze slightly to make direct eye-to-eye contact. When the gaze is held it is a signal that the other person wants to say something. Consider a committee meeting where you strongly disagree with a proposal a speaker is making. In an effort to be recognized and voice your disapproval, you will attempt to make direct eye contact with the speaker. Nonverbally, you are asking permission to be called upon to speak.

During an interrogation a suspect who has been quietly listening to the investigator's theme may try to establish mutual gaze to seek permission to speak. Invariably, if this permission is granted, the suspect will offer a denial. Whether the denial is truthful or deceptive will require further assessment, but the societal rule remains: Prior to interrupting a speaker, often an attempt will be made to establish mutual gaze with that speaker.

Mutual gaze by an investigator can be used during an interview to encourage a subject to continue to talk. Assume that you have asked a subject the question, "Tell me about your relationship with (the victim)?" and the suspect offers a shallow response. By establishing mutual gaze with the suspect following his response sends the nonverbal message, "I want you to tell me more." Under this circumstance simply by looking at the suspect's eyes, and perhaps nodding your head, most suspects will continue to talk.

Nature of Eye Contact

Eye contact can be generally described as cold, hard, penetrating, warm or soft. Quantifying these descriptions can be difficult, but they refer to pupillary dilation and related muscles affecting the opening of the eye lids and contraction of the eye brows. A cold, hard stare may signify defiance, anger or authority. As an example, with the proper stare a parent can send the nonverbal message to a child, "Don't do that!" A suspect who displays this type of eye contact may be legitimately angry, which is more often associated with truthfulness. If the stare is forced and inconsistent with other nonverbal behaviors, it may reflect defiance which is more often associated with deception.

During an interview, an investigator should avoid a cold hard stare since it signifies an emotional detachment from the suspect, which is undesirable. Rather, warm and soft eye contact should be used. This type of eye contact encourages open communication since it is associated with openness, trust and liking. Innocent suspects, who are not overly nervous, often display warm and soft eye contact during an interview. Conversely, a deceptive suspect's eyes are often described as shifty, unfocused or averting.

Factors Influencing Eye Contact

In addition to culture, a subject's eye contact may be influenced by their personality, general nervous tension, their emotional state and various medical conditions. It is important, therefore, that an investigator establish a baseline of normal eye contact for each subject before attaching significance to this behavior. Of equal importance, an investigator should be aware of his or her own eye contact when communicating with others. Some people simply have atypical eye contact. They may engage in a penetrating, cold hard stare when conversing about even insignificant topics. Others, may exhibit generally poor eye contact when talking to a trusted friend about a topic of mutual interest. Such deviations from societal norms may cause difficulties for an investigator whose success is so closely associated with effective communication.

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman