Difficulty maintaining eye contact

Dear Alice,

I've been experiencing in the past few months something that I understand, but am unable to deal with effectively. It is the difficulty to maintain eye contact while conversing with others. Usually my thinking drifts from paying attention to the conversation into concentrating on where should I look. It's really annoying and sometimes it makes me avoid people just because I'll be unable to have eye contact with them.

What is also annoying is that I feel that the person I'm talking to is getting unnecessary tension because of my "looks" that I'm sure do not carry any bad feelings or insinuations. I've read an article suggesting that this could be part of a "shyness syndrome," however, I do not consider myself to be shy.

Finally, this phenomenon fluctuates, but I haven't been able to relate this fluctuation to any specific factor (i.e., it does not change whether talking to men or women). Thanks for your valuable answer.

The Appreciative inquirer

Dear The Appreciative inquirer,

Many people experience difficulties maintaining eye contact during conversations. Recognizing that you're experiencing difficulty with making eye contact, and its impact on the ability to effectively maintain conversations, is a great step towards improving communication skills. Eye contact is an important part of non-verbal communication, therefore, maintaining and understanding it can guide the flow of conversation. Maintaining eye contact indicates attentiveness and demonstrates engagement and active listening.

In order to understand your own difficulty with this issue, let's delve into why humans make eye contact with each other in the first place. Making eye contact, or directing your gaze at someone, is a social gesture that is used to regulate interaction, facilitate communication, and create a sense of intimacy as well as social inclusion and control. Innately, when you are looking at another person, this signals to them that you have directed your attention toward them. When a person is the target of another person’s direct gaze, it activates their amygdala, which is a cluster of cells near the base of the brain that help process and regulate emotions. The activation of the amygdala triggers an emotional response to the other person’s direct gaze. A fundamental component of emotional or affective responses is the arousal of our physiological reactions, including pupil dilation and an escalation in blood pressure and respiratory rate. 

Essentially, when we find ourselves the target of another person’s direct gaze, our brain triggers an emotional response which is also called an affective response. Whether this affective response is positive or negative though, is contingent on a number of factors, including the specific context of the situation and the gazer’s verbal and non-verbal behavior, particularly their facial expressions and their verbiage. Unwanted, unsolicited, or unexpected eye contact can elicit a negative affective response in an individual, but generally, another person’s direct gaze often signals attention and social inclusion, which tends to elicit positive emotions. Humans have a fundamental need to belong and maintain social relationships, therefore, a person’s direct gaze can often feel like a realization of this need.

Eye contact serves a vital purpose in conversation and has the power to elicit an emotional response from us, however, it is important to recognize that is only one feature of improving communication. Although you don't consider yourself to be shy, you might have at least one thing in common with shy people: you may attach more meaning to your own words and actions (in this case, eye contact) or read into them more than those around you do. It may be a valuable exercise to take some time to reflect on your beliefs on socializing and engaging in conversations to aid in identifying underlying factors that contribute to your difficulty maintaining eye contact. Some guiding questions you might ask yourself include: how much value do I put on eye contact? How do I think people will perceive me if I don’t maintain direct eye contact? Have I made any assumptions about myself based on my inability to maintain eye contact? Using some of these questions as a guide may be a helpful starting point as you understand where your difficulties with eye contact come from. 

There are countless reasons a person might have difficulty maintaining eye contact with others, including social, cultural, personal, mental, and emotional reasons. Individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may experience difficulty making eye contact. It can often be attributed to an impairment with social interactions in general, though there are various theories that delve into the potential specific ways that social impairment causes these difficulties with eye contact; for example, many people with ASD have trouble understanding social signals, and if they do pick up on these signals, they might have trouble acting on or reacting to them. However, difficulty making eye contact with others is only one of many symptoms that can contribute towards a professional diagnosis of ASD, and doesn't automatically indicate that a person has this condition. Clinicians complete a thorough evaluation prior to providing such a diagnosis.

There are plenty of ways that you can try to improve your ability to make and maintain eye contact with others. First, practice focusing on and listening to your conversation partner rather than concentrating on maintaining eye contact. When you engage and actively listen to the content, making eye contact may follow suit as you pay attention and demonstrate value in the information provided by your conversation partner. Other tips for improving and maintaining eye contact are:

  • Maintain a direct gaze for four to five seconds before looking away
  • Avoid looking down, as that signals to the other person that you might lack confidence or interest
  • The 50/70 rule: maintain eye contact while talking 50 percent of the time and while listening 70 percent of the time (while this concept may initially be difficult to understand, with practice, it may come intuitively)

If you’re interested in getting to the root of this challenge or would like further guidance, it might also be useful to speak with a mental health professional. If you're a student, you can make an appointment at your school's counseling department or mental health clinic. Student or not, you can log into the National Institute of Mental Health's Getting Help: Locate Services for more information on finding a counselor in your area. You could also try out some courses in conversation or social skills offered at the YM/YWCA or a local school such as a community college. With each step you take toward tackling this difficult issue, your relationships and self-confidence will benefit.

Last updated Aug 26, 2022
Originally published Aug 31, 1994