How Eye Contact Improves Communication

Eyes are an important part of how we communicate. When you use good eye contact with patients and others in medical settings, you can clearly deliver important health information and better understand the needs and responses of people.

What is good eye contact? It’s interacting with people by facing them and looking directly into their eyes. Making eye contact shows you’re listening and concentrating on what’s being said. Emotions, tone, and other aspects of communication come across when you look into people’s eyes. Your eyes can communicate sincerity, integrity, stress, comfort, and other qualities.

Using your eyes along with words, body language, and vocal tone can better convey both your thoughts and your feelings. And good eye contact during a conversation is one indication that the communication has gone well.

Good eye contact also shows respect. It establishes that the message and the person giving it is important. Nurses, medical professionals and others who use good eye contact build more trust and more clearly and completely communicate.

To effectively use eye contact, Michigan State University recommends:

  • Establish eye contact right away. Before you begin talking, focus on the listener’s eyes. Don’t look down or look at something before you begin speaking.
  • Use the 50/70 rule. Keep eye contact for about 50 percent of the time while you’re speaking and 70% of the time while you listen. This shows interest and projects confidence.
  • Break eye contact every 4-5 seconds. After about five seconds, slowly glance to the side and then establish eye contact again. This prevents staring and avoids discomfort.
  • Look away slowly to the side, not down. Don’t dart your eyes. Breaking eye contact too abruptly can make you look shy or nervous. Remember to look from side-to-side, not down. Looking down can make it seem like you lack confidence.
  • Listen with your eyes.  Communication happens with your eyes while you’re listening just as much as when you’re talking. Remember that while you’re listening and maintaining eye contact, you should smile and look interested.
  • Practice. Good eye contact come easy to some, but not others. It’s okay to practice until you become confident. You can look at an eyebrow or the space between the eyes and mouth. You can also practice with yourself in the mirror.

For more information, Michigan State University has a three-part series on eye contact.
The first is Eye Contact: An Introduction to Its Role in Communication.