Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Virtual communication puts us in a weird position. Literally.
There’s a lot of talk about the importance of eye contact and I get questions every day from frustrated people who want to understand why it’s so hard to communicate through a webcam.
It’s human instinct to look at people when they talk to us—at least when we’re paying attention. In fact, that’s one of the primary ways we signal that we are absorbing what they say.
Eye contact does two things:
1. It makes others feel seen. It signals that we care enough to focus on what they have to say. And it can cause the brain to emit oxytocin. This can build trust, bonding, and even comfort.
2. Eye contact helps us see other people on a deeper level. We unconsciously receive tons of information from people’s micro-expressions and body language: everything from how rapidly they blink to tiny muscle movements in their faces. This information helps our subconscious minds decipher the nuances of their reactions and intentions, which is important for the feeling of safety. It also helps convey confidence and credibility.
Overall, moderate eye contact is a winning formula built into our system.
But what if you have to choose between making others feel “seen”, and actually seeing them?
On one hand, people don’t feel you’re looking at them unless you’re looking at the camera. So you have to give them the experience of eye contact. And on the other hand, you can’t really see people unless you’re looking at your screen—which means not looking at the camera. So…you need to do both. While this rhythm should ultimately be natural and organic, here’s an exercise you can try to get to that point.
Start a virtual meeting with just yourself, or with a buddy with whom you’d like to experiment.
Look at the camera for approximately a count of 12. Look at the screen for a count of three. Back to camera for 12, down to the screen for a count of three. Do this 10 times in a row—or more, much more. Why so many times? Repetition builds muscle memory.
As you get used to this pattern, you don’t need to count anymore. You can find your own natural rhythm based on the content of your conversation and the pace. This will begin to feel more comfortable in real meetings. And you will get used to looking at the camera without feeling so much like you’re “lost in a void”.
Then you can focus on what really counts, connecting.