“Look at me…”
…are 3 words you wont hear me say.
I have heard them so many times in classrooms, corridors, playgrounds, school gates, offices, restaurants… etc, etc. Sometimes said gently, sometimes forcefully; always a command. I know I used to say them to my class when I was a teacher. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know back then what I know today. In this day and age, when we are all aware of the desperate need for mental health awareness in schools, offices and homes… the dynamics of eye contact is something that needs to be understood, especially for 1:1 situations.
It Still Happens…
Recently I was hearing about someone (a grown-up) who was in a meeting with a Mental Health Professional who said these 3 words to her. She was looking away at the time…at her shoes… and had been for most of the meeting.
Hearing this really saddened me. This lady, the client (or ‘patient’ depending on the situation and service) was left feeling like she had done something wrong in not having given the eye contact and been found out. Now she also felt like a failure that she couldn’t do it, even though she was being asked to do something she found next to impossible at the time. This was a meeting with a professional who clearly didn’t understand the impact of what was going on, what she was doing, or how best to connect with someone not giving eye contact.
In a trauma-aware school or any other setting, where the aim is to keep people big or small emotionally safe and understood, these are words that will be redundant. If adults really learn how to keep others emotionally safe, these words just wont feature. It doesn’t matter whether the condition is anxiety, depression, autism, or just plain fear or shame.
If a child is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
If an adult is not looking at an adult in the face it is because they do not feel emotionally safe to do so.
Really looking at someone in the eye is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. Have you noticed what happens in your body when you try to do this? With some people it will be easier – with others more uncomfortable and with others, at times, impossible…
and what directs our ability to look someone in the eye is within us.
Our state of confidence, openness, assertiveness. Our sense of safety in that moment.
What actually directs this is our nervous system.
If we are in a state where our ventral vagus is operating, then we are able to make full use of our social engagement system and connect with people around us. We feel safe and we can easily read people around us.
If we are feeling anxious, angry, fearful or overwhelmed, misunderstood or unsafe in anyway, then our nervous system changes, and our dominant drive becomes one to find safety. Our body changes as we are feeling vulnerable and looking at people in the eye in this state is not safe.
IF you have ever been around dogs or horses you will know they will give you the deepest, longest, ‘I really see you’ gaze when they feel safe. They will also give you regular eye contact at a less penetrating level if they want to and feel safe to. If they meet a person or animal they don’t feel safe with they look away. If they know they have done something wrong they look away.
This is biological, survival wiring. It happens to us all when we feel unsafe.
When we ask, direct or demand that someone look at us in the eye – or even look at our face, when they would rather not, then we show them we do not understand them, we do not notice them, or we do not care about them. We communicate we don’t understand them and therefore they are not safe with us. If we do notice and continue to demand their gaze, then we are potentially manipulating a power dynamic – and not in their favour. If there is a power dynamic anyway (e.g. adult telling a child, or professional telling a client) then the dynamics of survival kick in further and the child or client will feel compelled to do what the ‘bigger power’ demands of them…for their survival… and yet their physiology can’t help as it needs to stay safe…it needs to keep looking away.
When I have worked with teachers and parents around this, they have been able to feel in their body the incredible resistance to looking someone in the face/ eye when you don’t feel comfortable with them. “I would rather have looked ANYWHERE other than actually at you at that moment” is common, and appropriate feedback of their short experience of being put in that uncomfortable, pressured situation. [NB: and they say it whilst voluntarily giving me full eye contact and a smile again ;-)]
How to respond when someone isn’t giving you eye contact:-
- notice their lack of eye contact and acknowledge to yourself they are not feeling so safe with you (or this conversation) or themselves right now
- ask yourself if you are doing something that is overwhelming (speaking too fast or too loud, standing too close, moving arms too close, shaming/blaming language)
- change yourself to become less of a threat – this really requires YOU to have a sufficient level of self-awareness and a significant level of desire to bring the best out of the other person
- if the changes you make don’t seem to help them feel safer, ask them gently, if there is anything that would make them feel more comfortable right now.
- do all the above without drawing attention to the fact they are not looking at you.
Schools, families, meeting rooms, offices, well-being clinics, will be safer if those ‘in charge’ can notice the level of eye contact they are being offered by those they are with, as indicators of the level of emotional safety at that time.
‘People are not listening if they are not giving me eye contact’. This is utter untruth. Seriously. This is just conditioned belief and is wrong. It is totally possible to hear what people are saying whilst not looking them in the eye. Read a story to children while they draw and ask them questions about it afterwards if you need proof – and can handle the lack of attention focused on you 😉
If we think we need eye contact before we have someone’s ears then we are sorely mistaken.
“Look this way…”, “look to the board…”, “look over there…” “can you see…” are all great alternatives that help direct vision, without manipulation of power dynamics that make things worse.
In a nut shell
When someone gives you eye contact acknowledge it as the gift they are offering you.
If they can’t give you eye contact then they are not feeling safe with you, or with themselves.
Telling / asking / demanding they give you eye contact is the worst thing you can do to someone feeling unsafe.
Understanding this helps children and adults.
Not drawing attention to it helps children and adults.
Diverting effort into helping them feel less threatened helps children and adults feel safer…
… which naturally in time will enable them to change their internal neuro-physiology and look you in the eye… if they want to.