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Executive Strategy: How Long Is Good Eye Contact?

Business people, eye contact
Business people, eye contact

I’m in a New York City subway. Seated across from me is a very muscular guy with a baseball bat that he keeps tapping into his left palm. He looks angry, and he’s staring at me as if to say, “It’s all your fault.”

If this guy were giving a presentation, let's say on “How to Resolve 10 Everyday Problems with a Baseball Bat,” he’d be making a classic mistake: looking at just one person in the audience (me!) at the expense of everyone else.

Of course, no one else in the subway is looking at anyone. They’re certainly not looking at this guy.

What is good eye contact anyway? A lot of people have taken the wrong subway, or read the wrong book.

Good eye contact is not continuous. I’ve interviewed job candidates who thought it was continuous – they never take their eyes off you. Please don’t do that. It’s scary.

In general, 3-5 seconds is about right; the person listening usually looks longer than the one speaking. But it really depends on whom you’re looking at – and where.

You could be in an elevator. You could be face-to-face with a grizzly bear. What if you’re in an elevator with a grizzly bear? I’d say 3-5 seconds is a tad long, unless you and the bear ride up together everyday.

And 3-5 seconds may be too long if you’re in a non-Western culture, or talking with a really shy person.

The subway guy doesn’t look shy, so after a while I look him in the eye to let him know, in no uncertain terms, “Buddy, your 3-5 seconds are up.” Then I look away, to let him know, “I’m certainly willing to consider an extension.”

He gets off at the next stop - I’m sure it was the way I handled it.

Tip: Avoid these mistakes: 1) Not looking long enough, or too long, 2) In a group, only looking at the people you like, or who are most influential, or who may or may not have baseball bats.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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