Does Eye Contact Matter on the Job?

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, October, 2017

At his three-month review, Matthew received positive feedback about his performance of tasks as a junior business analyst. However, he was annoyed about an area his supervisor said needed improvement: engaging with others. Matthew was told to show more enthusiasm and involvement with co-workers. “People don’t like that you won’t even look at them,” the supervisor said.

After telling me about the feedback Matthew said, “All my life I’ve heard about eye contact. What difference does it make if I am doing a good job?”

“For one thing,” I said, “it signals to your co-workers that you are paying attention to them, and participating in an interaction. When your attention drifts to a wall or window, people perceive that you are not interested in what they are saying.”

The irony for Matthew was that he found it easier to concentrate on conversations when his gaze was fixed on an object. However, he was unaware that by doing this, he was sending a nonverbal message that a blank wall was more interesting than his colleagues.

Melanie was working on her presentation skills. Her boss said that she needed to adjust content to match the needs of her audience. “You can tell that the salespeople are bored when you include too much technical detail,” he said.

Initially, Melanie was astonished that her supervisor could know this. I explained another value of eye contact: noticing what people are looking at provides clues as to what they are thinking. “When people spend most of the time looking away from a speaker, or doodling on their note pads, it signals boredom,” I said.

“I know that eye contact is important,” Melanie replied, “but I never really understood why.”

For some individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disorder, eye contact can be uncomfortable or completely distracting. Matthew, for example, had a hard time looking and listening. I taught him how to simulate eye contact by looking at the space between a person’s eyes.

For Melanie, sustaining eye contact felt unnatural. But once she realized how much she could learn about others, she wanted to improve this ability. I explained the 5-second technique, which she agreed to practice with her husband. They set aside 10 minutes each evening for the exercise. As they conversed, Melanie would make eye contact for 5 seconds, then looked at her husband’s mouth or his shoulder for 5 seconds, and then look back at his eyes. The five seconds of eye contact was enough to “check in” and monitor the interaction, but not so long as to be perceived as staring.

At first, Matthew and Melanie found the techniques to be uncomfortable. But over time, simulating and making eye contact became more natural, and both received positive reactions from co-workers.

Copyright 2017, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching