Look at this face:
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you look at it? To me, it’s intentness.
During the last several years, among other things, I’ve been studying nonverbal communication. I’ve read books, I’ve watched videos, and I’ve gone out and practiced and talked to people.
The greatest insight I got from it is not a new, hidden microexpression that no one before me managed to perceive. As a matter of fact, my insight has absolutely nothing to do with the nonverbal communication of other people. It’s about how I look at people, and how you too (probably) look at people.
There are certain conventions in the animal world (including our species) as to how we look at one another. Have you ever tried to eye gaze, i.e. to look at people directly in their eyes and not break contact until they do? For many people, myself included, this is extremely uncomfortable and difficult to do. Naturally, some do this with no difficulty whatsoever, but they are not in the majority. Even dogs exhibit this behavior – gazing into a dog’s eyes and not breaking contact can be an invitation to fight. When parents are angry with their children, they stare at them, but the children don’t stare back and avoid eye contact. From this, we may conclude that it is a power dynamic – the one that is more powerful may look, and the one that is weaker may not. This is an intuitive notion, but it is worth stating it explicitly.
Here’s the thing with nonverbal communication: you have to be on the lookout for the signs that the body gives. When people converse, it is habitual that they look at one another some of the time, but not always, constantly breaking and reestablishing eye contact, looking away while listening and talking, and only occasionaly creating eye contact to stress something we are talking about. However, if one is ever to absorb all of the information the body offers, this laxness cannot be permitted. If you want to find out interesting things, you do not slack. You have to look to see.
But here we come upon a problem, because the power dynamic often doesn’t enable us to look. Do you gaze into the eyes of your boss, or a police officer that is about to arrest you, or your abusive husband? No, usually, you don’t. Should you? Maybe.
Tim Ferriss, an author I appreciate highly, proposes this comfort challenge:
“People are typically are uncomfortable when eye contact is made for a long time. In conversation, maintain eye contact when you are speaking. Practice with people bigger or more confident than yourself. If a passerby asks you what the hell you’re staring at, just smile and respond, “sorry about that. I thought you were an old friend of mine.” Focus on one eye and be sure to blink occasionally so you don’t look like a psychopath or get your ass kicked.”
I think this is a great exercise and anyone that has a problem with self confidence should practice this until they get good at it.
But this is not the subject of this post. Watching intently and looking into someone’s eyes are similar, but not the same. Oftentimes we not only don’t look into someone’s eyes, we don’t even look in their direction.
I believe it has something to do with our not wanting the other person uncomfortable, not only the power dynamic we mentioned. This is an understandable motivation – who wants to be known as the psycho stare guy? However, that’s jumping from one extreme to another. You don’t have to stare, but you do have to look.
So cultivate that profound habit of actually looking at people, not breaking contact when they look at you, observing them as if you were playing a demanding videogame, or watching an absorbing film. There is no laziness in the eyes then. Don’t let there be any when you interact with other people. The power dynamic does not permit you to look? Rebel against the power dynamic. You are worried that people will be uncomfortable? Do it anyways, and if they are uncomfortable, at least you’ll see it. This is one of the most important things you can do if you wish to perfect your practical application of nonverbal communication knowledge. If you are trying to shoot at a target half a kilometer away, you have more chance to do it with a sniper than with a handgun. Same goes with spotting nonverbal cues, seeing lies, perceiving discomfort, sensing aggression. Here, you simply need to force yourself to do better. Don’t be a handgun; be a sniper.