Why Do we Find it Difficult to Maintain Eye Contact When Speaking?

Difficulty in maintaining eye contact can interfere with the ability to have an effective conversation. Why? Learn the answer here!
Why Do we Find it Difficult to Maintain Eye Contact When Speaking?

Last update: 27 June, 2022

Most people find it difficult to maintain eye contact when speaking. However, there are things that matter more than words in a conversation: gestures, silences, posture, and, of course, the gaze.

In fact, this is not only relevant in personal settings. On a professional level, eye contact plays an important role for any speaker. Here’s why you shouldn’t ignore it and the reasons why it can be difficult.

The importance of eye contact when speaking

As we said, eye contact isn’t just a simple add-on during a conversation. It’s a key component of communcation, since we use our gazes to connect with another person.

In fact, our gaze determines the interest that the other person may experience in what we say or not. It’s a way of bringing her closer or distancing her from the interlocution. When it’s missing, it can reflect insecurity and makes it difficult to establish a connection.

La importancia del contacto visual al hablar

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Some reasons why it’s difficult to maintain eye contact when speaking

Having difficulty maintaining eye contact when speaking can be explained by several factors. While a shy personality is one of the most frequent reasons, there are actually other reasons, too. Let’s take a look at them.

Intimidation and embarrassment

For example, we may be in front of a proud and rude person, whose gestures are very strong. Sometimes, this derives a feeling that he or she can read our minds. Hence the difficulty to have that eye contact.

Similarly, there’s the case in which the discomfort has its origin in liking the interlocutor. This generates a feeling of embarrassment or shyness that prevents us from holding our gaze.

The topic of conversation isn’t very interesting

That is, while we talk to the other person, our attention falters. It’s difficult to concentrate on the “here and now” and we’re distracted by different stimuli, so we lose eye contact.

Self-esteem is involved

Some people feel they’re in a position of inferiority to their interlocutor, so they “avoid” his or her gaze.

Difficulties due to social anxiety

Some experience intense rejection and sustained discomfort in social interactions. As a consequence, one of the skills that are affected has to do with maintaining one’s gaze when speaking.

We want to be explicit with a message of rejection

Whether this is because we’re angry or because we want to annoy the other person, many times, a person’s gaze isn’t sustained with the purpose of evidencing that situation. In this sense, we see how the gaze transcends its mere sensory character to be endowed with a bigger purpose.

Eye contact is a complex process

Finally, some studies reveal that eye contact is difficult to sustain because this natural process has a certain degree of complexity. Holding a conversation while gazing “forces” us to look away for a few seconds as a way of conserving our cognitive resources.

In one experiment, a group of people was in front of a screen with a face looking at them. The instruction was that they had to maintain eye contact while solving a verbal test. Initially, the face on the screen looked at the participant, but also looked away sometimes.

In the results, performance was not affected. However, the challenge was then made more complex, with a verbal test of greater difficulty. In this case, performance was interfered with.

As part of the conclusion of the experiment, it was noted that people need “a little air” for their minds. This is why they look away from a conversation.

It’s as if the two actions – reasoning and looking – are in conflict. In this sense, we could also say that individuals look away in order to think about the content of what’s being said.

Motivos por los que cuesta mantener el contacto visual al hablar

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Cultural factors also influence eye contact

Eye contact also has to do with social and communication skills. In fact, we’re capable of rehearsing a speech for hours, but we often forget how to handle our body language and eye contact. 

However, we have to be aware that eye contact is a determining factor in making another reading of what we’re listening to. For example, we can empathize with the other person, realize if they’re uncomfortable, if they understand us, and if we’re speaking too loudly, among other things.

Incorporating eye contact as a source of information allows us to have more effective and connected conversations

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However, it’s very important to take into account the culture and society in which we’re interacting. There are still places where looking someone straight in the eye – for example, an authority figure – is a sign of bad manners.

At the same time, there are cases in which society, in general, is very submissive, so whoever is in an inferior position must keep their distance from his superior, and one of the ways to do this is through their gaze.

Beyond the opinion we may have, these are situations that exist and where the presence or absence of eye contact has an enormous symbolic weight.

In short, eye contact involves much more than the set of optic nerves. People are capable of making different uses of eye contact. In other words, we’re always communicating something through it.

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  • Schneier, Franklin & Rodebaugh, Thomas & Blanco, Carlos & Lewin, Hillary & Liebowitz, Michael. (2011). Fear and avoidance of eye contact in social anxiety disorder. Comprehensive psychiatry. 52. 81-7. 10.1016/j.comppsych.2010.04.006.