What you do with your clothes, hair, accessories, posture, gestures--it all conveys deep, rich meaning. But your eyes send messages, too, and failure to maintain good eye contact with your conversation partner can jeopardize your ability to get ideas out and build personal or business relationships. Cues from the eyes are often very subtle, but here's how you could come across if you don't make an effort to control your gaze and related behaviors.

You think you're better or have a higher social standing than the person you're listening to.

General lowering of the eyes during conversation can send the message that you're submitting to your conversation partner. But if you're not looking at the other person at all, directing your attention to other people or things in the room, you're essentially saying "You're not important" or, slightly more egotistically, "I get to decide when you're important. I'm in control."

The fix:

  • Position yourself physically to avoid the impression of authority, such as sitting next to, rather than in front of, the person you're talking to.
  • Use inclusive, inviting language such as "we" or "our", or "Could you tell me about...?"
  • Summarize the main points, so your partner knows you've been processing what they've said.

You have a more introverted, socially anxious or neurotic personality.

Holding someone's gaze for an appropriate period is a nonverbal cue that tells the other person you are engaged and want to keep talking. Breaking eye contact, by contrast, communicates you don't want to continue the conversation and desire some distance, which can be rooted in the psychological need to protect yourself from anticipated embarrassment, shame, or other negative feelings that could come from the interaction. A study by Jari Hietanen and Helen Uusberg found that individuals who held neurotic traits were less comfortable with direct eye contact and preferred to face others with averted gazes.

The fix:

  • Ask more open-ended questions.
  • Drop a compliment or two into the conversation to show you can be observant and positive.
  • Plan a few things to talk about in advance so you can avoid awkward lulls that might confirm you're uncomfortable.
  • Keep your chin up. Lowering the chin is a self-protective, submissive gesture, whereas keeping your chin up demonstrates confidence. It's also harder to let your gaze drop away from your conversation partner if you don't allow the chin to follow.

3. You haven't organized your thoughts or are unprepared.

Individuals usually look away when they are thinking, hesitating, or talking in a non-fluent way. This behavior likely serves two purposes, the first of which is to shield themselves psychologically from the embarrassment of being judged for not proceeding. Second, it allows them to focus without the distraction of the visual input they'd get from their conversation partner.

The fix:

  • Slow down your speech slightly to give your brain time to process what you want to come next.
  • Be upfront and casually request a few seconds to think before you respond.
  • Try to speak in concrete rather than abstract terms. Hard science professors tend to hesitate more than humanities professors, and researchers theorize the difference is due to the fact that hard science professors are more limited in the ways they can express themselves about their topics.

The suggestions above can reduce the odds that you'll look away as you talk, or that you'll feel awkward if you do. But you don't need to stop there. Other little tricks, such as practicing maintaining eye contact for three or four seconds at a time with yourself in a mirror or getting used to eye contact through video apps, can help, too. The key is to understand the purpose looking away ultimately is serving for you. Once you acknowledge the root of the problem, you can choose the specific techniques that work best.