Who do I look at?
June 4, 2015 12:29 PM   Subscribe

When talking with more than 1 person in a conversation who do I look at?

I was recently visiting with two friends and I found myself unsure of who I should look at while speaking. Eye contact back and forth with both of them? Eye contact with the one who initiated the topic of discussion? The one I'm better friends with (this excludes the other)?

How about in a large get together? Who do I look at and direct my comments toward when there is a big group?
posted by Sassyfras to Human Relations (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I will look back and forth between the two of them if it's a general discussion or look at the person I'm responding to, and then back at the third person to make sure they're included. I'm bad at eye contact so I tend to look like I'm looking over their shoulders but the intent to act normally is there so I feel good about it.

I'm really bad at big groups so hopefully someone who isn't can answer this for us both.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:43 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

- You look at and give your attention to the person talking.
- In a large group you rotate who you give eye contact to.
- If you're facilitating a large group discussion, you pay attention to who is participating and who is not participating and you give a bit more eye contact to people who are participating less to invite them into the conversation.
- You make sure you're asking questions of everyone in the conversation so they are invited into the discussion and made to feel welcome.
posted by brookeb at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

Eye contact back and forth with both of them?

Yes, but you don't need to like... use a timer or do it frantically. Just don't neglect one person/stare too much at the other. You can also glance down at the ground or look at your hands or their hands/the background occasionally to mix it up a bit. Too much eye contact can be disconcerting and feel like this. Something between intense unbroken eyecontact and utter avoidance of eye contact is the right balance.

Eye contact with the one who initiated the topic of discussion?

At first, sure, but don't ignore the other person.

The one I'm better friends with (this excludes the other)?

No, this would be rude.

How about in a large get together? Who do I look at and direct my comments toward when there is a big group?

In that case, I generally do a eye-contact scan among a few people before settling on one person for a while (10 seconds?), then repeating the scan and settling on someone else. In a group of 6-10 I'll flit over 2-3 people before settling on 1, then continue in clockwise until I settle on someone new, etc. Saying "clockwise" makes me sound like a robot, it's more natural than that, but the idea is to just look around and look at more people without doing the T1000 staredown of a single person.
posted by gatorae at 12:49 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep your eyes moving.

Eye contact is engagement; if you want someone to feel like you value their presence during a conversation, make eye contact. You don't have to do it for very long, but you do have to do it consistently. It's fine to give the most eye contact to the person you are currently responding to or primarily addressing, but keep "touching base" with other people as you go.

When you're in a group and you're all equally "in charge" (i.e. you aren't leading the group, giving a speech) and presuming you're in something that looks sort of like a circle if you squint, orient your shoulders to what the halfway point would be if a line that included you in it were drawn in such a way as to split the group equally and then keep your eyes moving. The persons most "across" from you can act as your home base, but you should be looking at others regularly. Don't forget to make eye contact with the people who are very close to you/in your peripheral vision; it's easy to lose those people in a group discussion (and in fact people who try to hide or avoid interaction will pick those spots because they know they're less likely to have to engage. You aren't doing them any favors by ignoring them though).

When there's a large group and you're addressing them, the same general rules apply. If you're mobile or can't choose where you stand/sit you may not be able to fully orient to the center. But even then, you can pick a center "home base" (moving your head or eyes *too much* can make you look panicked, unstable, or undermine the sense you are trying to project of being a leader or trustable) but don't neglect to periodically try and connect with every point in the crowd with your eyes. Not every person! That would probably get pretty insane.
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:51 PM on June 4, 2015

If you are directly speaking to one person, as if you are responding to something they said, you make eye contact with them directly when beginning to speak. When listening, look at the speaker if they're speaking directly to you.

If you are neither speaking nor being directly addressed, spend more time looking at the speaker, but let your eyes scan the room. You should be able to have a general idea of whether others in the room are paying attention, their general mood or opinion of what's being said (through examining their facial expression and motions), and whether they are about to speak -- in case you are also thinking about speaking next, or if you are kind enough to interrupt a run-on speaker so that someone more shy may be able to weigh in.

If you want someone to stop speaking or want to make an interruption, make direct eye contact and lean forward or make a gesture with your hands.
posted by mikeh at 1:06 PM on June 4, 2015

The one I'm better friends with (this excludes the other)?

Don't do this unless you really WANT to exclude the other, and to make them feel excluded.
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:52 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

When speaking look back and forth between listeners. (In a large group, look at individuals briefly at locations within the group, e.g. to your left, to your mid left, to the middle, to the mid right, to the right, then back again. Not head sweeping, eye contact briefly with individuals in different locations in the group.) When listening, look at who is speaking.
posted by bearwife at 3:25 PM on June 4, 2015

I think (?) what I do is yeah, look back and forth between people, mainly resting on one person while I'm expressing one thought, then on someone else for the next thought. But then, I'm not a huge storyteller - I don't tend to talk for very long at once. Usually someone will respond to something and then I'll respond to that/them, and so on.

Don't exclude anyone if you can help it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:46 PM on June 4, 2015

You look at the person talking and then when you're talking you switch back and forth between them.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:48 AM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Part of the point of eye contact is to check people's facial expressions and see how they're reacting. So, when you're speaking, rotate. If something you're saying is particularly relevant to one person, look at them. Are they reacting as you expected or did you just stick your foot in it?

If someone else is speaking, look mostly at them, with glances at the other people to poll their reactions. If they're speaking directly to a person who isn't you, look back and forth between those two with glances at anyone else in your group. Is someone upset? Is everyone bored?

Don't overthink this, though. Mostly just don't stare directly in someone's eyes for more than a couple seconds unless you're discussing something quite intimate.
posted by momus_window at 9:12 AM on June 5, 2015

I think it's a question of making everyone feel acknowledged.

You can get away with looking at just one person almost all of the time as long as you occasionally sweep your gaze over each other person, meaning, "Yes, I know you're here too".

To address your specific examples. Two friends: look at the person who initiated or is currently leading the conversation. Flick a glance at the other friend once in a while, generally when a recognizable point has been made.

Large group: fix your gaze on someone (possibly picked at random), announce your theme ("wow, I've just realized that..."), then sweep across the group as you speak, and deliver your point looking at someone else (again, can be just picked at random).

This sort of thing is more important than you might think. People like to be included and invited into conversations even when they have no intention or ability to contribute, and I think it's polite to keep up the fiction. The general principle is something like, "I'm speaking to X right now, but I'm aware that you, Y, are also here, and I'm willing to listen to you as well."
posted by Pechorin at 4:01 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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