Eye contact is one of the most fundamental way that we judge people we come into contact with.
If your eye contact is poor, you'll be judged as nervous, shifty, unreliable, weak, scared, socially inept or any combination. People will think you're telling a lie when you're not, and any number of other things.
Fortunately eye contact can be learned quite easily.
A first step is to assess your eye contact to figure out how well you're actually doing.
Take some time to pay close attention to how you use eye contact:
- Are you usually the first or last person to look away when you meet someones eyes?
- Do you seek eye contact or seek to avoid it when in crowded spaces?
- Do you look down when you meet someones eyes?
- Do you feel like you've been "caught out" when someone notices you looking at them, rather than holding eye contact?
- Are you able to stare someone down?
Depending on what your goal is, who the other party is, and what your intent is, there are many ways to "play" eye contact. I'm going to assume you're a man, since men are my main audience. Here are a few scenarios:
You're in a meeting, and want to convey strength and confidence
Don't stare, and don't hold eye contact for the entire time. But don't let your eyes shift. Your best bet is to switch between participants, and hold eye contact for a while, then move to another participant.
A good "trick" is to establish the pecking order amongst the people present, and spend more time looking the more important people in the eye. And always switch attention to whomever else is speaking or you'll just seem rude. But you can look away from them occasionally, and then it is worth looking other participants in the eye more briefly.
(If you want to make the speaker nervous, by all means keep eye contact constantly...)
Whatever you do, don't let your eyes wander all over the place or dart back and forth.
Consider that when you give eye contact, and the person is "lower" on the pecking order in the company or the context of the meeting, you will come off as better if you break eye contact last. If the other person is higher ranking, you may come off as aggressive if you keep eye contact too long, however you could also come off as "having balls" to stand up to them. You need to consider their personality.
If you find yourself always breaking eye contact first, practice breaking that pattern, as it will make you seem weak.
You're on a date
Deep eye contact creates bonds. But it can also seem needy if you keep it too much. Getting the balance right takes experience. The key is to keep long and solid eye contact a lot - let her break it first -, but also occasionally withdraw it totally for a while, for example "staring off in the distance" if she does something that you're not happy with.
This might sound like it is manipulative, but it is how well socialized people normally behave: We "punish" the speaker by taking attention away from them, and the response is often attempts to regain the attention.
(Try this on children and you get an extremely compelling demonstration of how powerful it is, but it works on adults too - and not only in romantic settings; just don't try it on your boss)
Most of the time, though, you want to deepend the eye contact: To slow down your speech and make her look into you eyes. Sometimes even gently using your fingertips to guide her face to keep eye contact can be powerful (but be careful not to seem condescending.
You're out and about and spot someone that takes your fancy
If you're shy, you are almost guaranteed to underestimate how long to keep eye contact before breaking it off. If you break eye contact first, you are almost guaranteed to have broken it too soon. If you don't look at her for at least 30-45 seconds after she breaks eye contact, chances are you will miss it when she looks back up to see if you're still looking to get an idea if you're interested.
This is a tough one. Many shy people will "jolt" and look away instantly when someone gains eye contact with them. That looks far more creepy or weak than holding still and seeming "stare".
Of course there are exceptions: If she looks angry. If she looks up in a huff. If it's dark and you're the only one there and she looks scared and might just be looking at you because she's afraid to look away. If she is with her very big and angry looking boyfriend.
But generally, if she holds your eye contact, why should you look away first? If you do, you will at best seem like you're not interested in her.