How often do you make eye contact? And I mean, proper eye contact? How often do you hold that gaze and explore the other person’s response? And how does that feel? Have you tried it and noticed that the other person pulls away or can’t reciprocate? Again how does that feel? What does it trigger for you?
Eye contact – it’s such a simple thing – but it’s fraught with complications and misunderstandings. In an age where it seems that most people have their eyes glued to their hand-held screens, it has never been more pertinent. It can make us feel connected or isolated. There are cultural / societal / generational implications. It can be challenging … objectifying … loving … enquiring or exposing.
As a counsellor, I sit opposite people all day, in a small, sparsely furnished room – there is very little place to hide and eye contact is a big part of the co-created communication – and of course, as we know, around 60% of communication is non-verbal.
But for many people eye contact is tough … challenging even. As a counsellor, I have to be aware of what is going on in the room – what the person I’m with may be experiencing and my own response to that.
I believe that therapy is an opportunity to try other ways of being. If we carried on doing the same old stuff we always do, it would be a waste of everyone’s time. The key here is the safe, confidential space of the therapy room and the therapeutic relationship. There’s very little place to hide in that encounter, which can be challenging, but also liberating and a starting point for personal exploration and change.
But what about out in the real world? So often people come to therapy to understand better how they are in relationship, perhaps with a partner, family member or work colleague.
And the reality is, we rarely get the opportunity to sit opposite someone and really talk – let alone have the time to be aware of our non-verbal communication. Chances are if we did that, the other person would storm out in a huff and our good intentions would be back at square one.
Face-to-face sit-down conversation can be confrontational – threatening even. If you experience that with someone you want to talk to, it might be that you need to cultivate ‘sideways’ conversations – such as in the car or whilst walking or doing household chores together. People can be really receptive to this. Alternatively, be aware of how you use eye contact – perhaps hold the eye contact for longer than you usually would or at other times look down, see how that impacts the engagement.
Ultimately, meaningful eye contact has its own magic. It’s not straight-forward – it might not always be met – but in reaching out and making that contact, something transformative can happen. Andre Aciman writes about this in his brilliant novel ‘Call Me By Your Name’. This is a beautiful piece of writing which captures all the complexity of connection:
‘This, I think, is the first time I dared myself to stare back at him. Usually, I’d cast a glance and then look away – look away because I didn’t want to swim in the lovely, clear pool of his eyes unless I’d been invited to – and I never waited long enough to know whether I was even wanted there; look away because I was too scared to stare anyone back; look away because I couldn’t acknowledge how much he mattered. Look away because that steely gaze of his always reminded me of how tall he stood and how far below him I ranked. Now, in the silence of the moment, I stared back, not to defy him, or to show I wasn’t shy any longer, but to surrender, to tell him this is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I want, there is nothing but truth between us now, and where there’s truth there are no barriers, no shifty glances, and if nothing comes of this, let it never be said that neither of us was unaware of what might happen. I hadn’t a hope left. And maybe I stared back because there wasn’t a thing to lose now. I stared back with the all-knowing, I-dare-you-to-kiss-me gaze of someone who both challenges and flees with one and the same gesture.’ – Andre Aciman