Eye Contact: Your First Signal and More, Part I – Tristan Chermack (Conflict Manager – DECEMBER, 2015)

eye contact

Making eye contact is something we do many times each day, and we may not even realize it but we all use it to communicate, consciously or not. Eye contact is a subset of  body language and this article is meant to be an introduction to this language and how it works, with a particular focus on how it pertains to the art of self-protection.

There are excerpts here from my book “What the Bully Doesn’t Want You to Know – A Streetwise Guide to Your Bully Problem”. The book itself is focused on bully problems which children face and is written for kids and their parents. Neither the book nor this article are designed to be comprehensive works on body language, but a beginning. The reason for this article is that virtually all of what is written on body language is extremely broad and most of the material is not pertinent to self-protection or potential conflict situations.

I will expand on the material from the book to include information about adult interactions. The fundamentals are the same as they are for children and have added nuances for adults.

Let’s start with some basics. What we are talking about here is only the first few moments of eye contact. Virtually all adults realize there is far more to extended eye contact and the cues which can be learned from watching someone. Our instincts can indicate whether someone might be lying, in a bad mood, nervous, troubled, or any of a vast number of things. Let’s begin with the first impression we create when we make eye contact.

Eye contact

The importance of eye contact is hard to overstate.  It is almost always the first contact we have with someone else.  The eyes really are the window to your soul.  The way you look at people, or don’t, tells them something about you.

Quickly lowering your eyes when you make eye contact with someone is a basic animal signal of submission and fear. This signal indicates to that person that you are weak, or at least that you think you are weaker than them. Animals reflect their ‘pecking order’ by showing signs of submission to those higher on the order than themselves. Lowering the head, and eyes, is a prime signal of submission. It is usually an unconscious response, but with a little practice you can learn to send a signal of confidence to those around you.

First, let’s define what you should and should not do. We have already indicated that quickly lowering your eyes and head down and away from someone is submissive. So, don’t do that. Almost everyone has done this, and it is a very common habit. So what should you do? If you find you have locked eyes with someone who you feel is threatening (or just about anyone else for that matter) it is a good idea to hold their gaze for a second. And we do mean a second literally, as in one-one thousand. Holding a gaze, or staring, for several seconds or longer can be construed as a challenge. It is possible to gather a lot of information about someone in one second. Once you have held their gaze for a second, move your eyes away calmly in a HORIZONTAL direction. This sends the message to someone that you see them, and you are unafraid. In others words, you are not being submissive.

Practicing this is actually rather easy. Simply go out and do it. Here is how:

Try it a few times in the mirror. You don’t have to go overboard here; just try to get the hang of what a confident gaze looks like for you.

Start with your friends to get the hang of it. By the way, they don’t even have to know you are doing it. You might be surprised at how they react.

Next, move on to strangers or anyone else who makes you uncomfortable. This should be a little difficult at first. You want to get used to feeling uncomfortable so that it ceases to be uncomfortable at all anymore. This can be done just about anywhere. A good place to practice is in a car where people are naturally reticent about looking at the person next to them.

Continue practicing this until you have made a habit of it.

You are on the way to controlling the message you send with your eyes.

If there was one thing you should recognize when it comes to reading someone else’s eyes, it is what is called the ‘hard stare’.  The hard stare is a determined look that someone is mentally prepared for a fight.  It is a reflection of what has gone on in their mind, locking out distractions and trivialities, focusing purely on the task at hand which is intently watching the target.

The hard stare is easy to recognize and will probably flip a subconscious mental trigger in you that something is wrong.  The stare itself is identified by the eyes being open slightly wider than usual and lack of blinking.  The eyes will lock on the target and not stray.  The facial muscles and chin will tighten with a stony expression, which looks more like pure determination than anger.  Once you see a hard stare you will recognize it instantly. It means the decision has been made and the eyes are issuing the challenge.  This is a clear sign saying “I am ready to fight you right now.”  You should treat this signal as what it is: a very clear signal of imminent threat.

Along with the stare, usually the aggressive party will usually stand up or already be standing.  You’ll notice the body will go into a fairly prepared stance with the knees bent and the chest will face the target.  Again, this is how the brain subconsciously prepares for battle. The time for sweet talking is over and you should either calmly depart or prepare quickly for a fight.  This means get near an exit, with as many friends as possible, and among cover to keep from being surrounded.

Those first moments of eye contact will leave an impression, we cannot help that. What we can do is make sure we are sending the right message, not one which looks inviting to a potential predator. We wish to send the message that we are not prey by not using the same body language that prey uses.

You could call this the external benefit of eye contact: how others see you from the outside. Next we will cover the internal aspect, which is the benefit you receive when you learn to use your eyes well.

m time to time.  If you are sitting hunched over a book or cell phone and glance up momentarily and down, then you are missing two points: posture and observation.  These two should work together.

Keep good body posture whether you are standing or sitting and scan regularly.  Take your time scanning and don’t rush it.  Anyone looking at you will quickly be able to tell which is more important to you: looking around or not paying attention to surroundings.  It is okay to be absorbed in a book or texting with someone, but go to a place where you are safe to do so and look up and around frequently.

It is very common to watch for people when you know they might be present, and it is almost always someone you already know to be a potential threat.  Kids who are around bullies learn to watch for their bully through pure fear.  They are constantly scanning so they can see them coming and get out early.

One thing to add here, which is something more common to adults than children, is that purposefully not making eye contact is also a signal. Take care not to think that this is imperceptible because it is. If a potential predator looks at you and you are intentionally avoiding eye contact, he will very likely be able to tell. This is a signal of pure fear, which is not the signal you want to send. A confident person does not fear making eye contact.

Once you make eye contact, what you are thinking is pretty easily conveyed through your facial expressions. I’m not talking mind reading here, but simple mood and attitude. What is on your mind will affect the signals you are sending, so take care of what is on your mind. Be smart, not oblivious – confident, not fearful. This type of communication is fascinating, but not within the scope of this article.

What we take in about our surroundings and the people within it is crucial to avoiding trouble. You can think of it this way: your goal is to see trouble before it sees you. A predator decides when and where he will strike, which is powerful. Predators will avoid targets which are aware (hard to approach undetected) and do not look like good opportunities. They will dismiss inviting targets which are not in a good place or time to strike. The first indicator is eye contact or lack thereof. An unobservant target is very inviting. You might never even make direct eye contact with a predator. He may very well dismiss you as a potential target merely because he sees you scanning the area, staying aware, and appearing ready. It is so much better to avoid being targeted early than try to evade a predator who has already chosen you as a target.


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