The Eyes Have It


“The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.” ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 – 43 BCE


The “it” that eyes have is the ability to connect with people in a powerful way.  Former President Bill Clinton is well known for his ability to captivate an audience of one or one thousand by making and maintaining eye contact.  You, too, can learn how to achieve eye contact with others in a way that will make you memorable.

A 1992 New York Times Magazine article referred to Bill Clinton’s remarkable skill in” making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized.”  I learned about the legendary Clinton ability to mesmerize second-hand when the CEO of my former company, who was no fan of the President, returned full of praise for Mr. Clinton from a visit to the White House where he had attended a meeting for Wall Street leaders.  The CEO described the President’s attentiveness as though you and he were the only people in the room and you were saying the most important things he had ever heard, and that President Clinton’s attention never wavered from the person with whom he was conversing no matter what was going on around him.  My first-hand knowledge of the renowned Clinton eye-contact occurred several years later at a book-signing event for his tome, My Life; despite his hectic book tour and meeting hundreds of people his charismatic eye-contact was electric.   

Like smiling, making eye contact — whether you’re being introduced, in an interview, speaking with someone at a networking event or addressing an audience — is a commanding skill you’ll want to acquire in your quest to achieve professional and personal success.

When to Make Eye Contact   

  • Upon being introduced 
  • While conversing
  • In passing with family, roommates, class/campus mates, acquaintances
  • When making a presentation to an audience

Look ‘Em in the Eye…

  1. To overcome hesitancy to look people in the eye, start by looking at TV newscasters, politicians and others who are speaking directly to you in the privacy of your home.  Pretend that Diane Sawyer or Brian Williams is speaking only to you, or that you and she/he are having a conversation, and maintain eye contact with them.  Watch their techniques in maintaining eye contact with the camera, occasionally looking away briefly.
  2. Once you’ve become accustomed to looking the TV people in the eye, progress to looking family members or room/housemates in the eye as they speak to you or you are speaking to them in passing.  Note how much more meaningful even a brief exchange becomes when you make eye contact and become fully engaged.
  3. Next, start making eye contact in passing with people you know on campus, in school corridors, the cafeteria and the quad.
  4. Finally, progress to making brief eye contact with strangers as you pass them.  Pair the eye contact with that smile we talked about in another recent post (Your Most Powerful Secret Weapon, February 7, 2012).
  5. When making a presentation, pick out someone in the audience and make eye contact for five to seven seconds, then pick out another audience member and hold eye contact for another seven seconds, and so on.

…But Try Not to Stare

Eye contact and staring are not the same.  Making eye contact is a way to engage fully with someone and demonstrate your complete attention to that person and what she or he is saying.  Staring, on the other hand, is showing the wrong kind of attention; without a smile a stare can be threatening or downright creepy; coupled with a smile it can be more diabolical than friendly!

It’s not always necessary to smile when making eye contact, especially if the conversation is serious.  However, your facial expression should be understanding and sympathetic, and convey that you are absorbed in whatever it is that the person is saying.

To maintain eye contact but avoid the effect of staring during a conversation, briefly try the following and then promptly resume eye contact:

  • flick your eyes to the side
  • nod your head and close your eyes
  • shake your head and close your eyes
  • laugh and look up
  • roll your eyes (in a friendly and empathetic manner)

And, Respect Personal Space

Another way in which to make and maintain friendly eye contact in a non-threatening manner is to keep a respectful distance from people.  You may have heard the expression, “keep at arm’s length,” which has multiple connotations including avoiding physical or emotional contact.  In this context, your arm’s length should be the respectful distance to stand from someone else when conversing, whether standing or sitting.  Thus, eye contact combined with respect for personal space strikes just the right balance in an interpersonal exchange.

Windows to the Soul

Speaking of expressions, you’re probably also familiar with, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.”  Although the origin and variations of this expression have been attributed to many sources — including certain Bible verse(s), a Yiddish proverb, Kant, Shakespeare and Cicero — its spirit refers to a person’s inner thoughts and feelings that are reflected in her or his eyes, such as joy, pain, grief, embarrassment, love, sympathy, understanding, boredom, confusion and so on.  When communicating to others, except for special situations, we want to deliver feelings that connect us to those with whom we are meeting and conversing in a positive manner.

Asking Someone Out

On the flip side of one’s academic or professional career is one’s personal life.  For students and young professionals who are single, knowing how to make eye contact skillfully, i.e., naturally and comfortably, can bring about great dating success.  When asking someone out, get her or his attention by making eye contact; doing so will demonstrate confidence and interest and set you apart from the crowd.  Both genders should avoid exaggerated or fake gestures when making eye contact; always be authentic and sincere.

When done right for business, social endeavors or romance, eye contact can be irresistible.

Until next time,


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