Does Eye Contact Help or Hurt a Negotiation?


Eye contact can make or break a negotiation. 

Too much eye contact can make your counterpart very uncomfortable. If you are engaged in a conversation and you appear to be staring, you become a distraction. The consequence of this is that your counterpart may become disengaged and Instead of listening to what you are saying the concern will be about why you’re staring at them.

The other side of this coin is, that if you don’t make enough eye contact you risk coming across as uninterested. Your counterpart may assume you are not paying attention. As a result, the rapport and trust that you took the time to develop will be questioned.  This could become a crucial point in your relationship with your counterpart. You have worked hard to build trust-based influence and something as seemingly innocent as too little eye contact could derail progress. The thought would be; If you’re not focusing on your counterpart during an important business conversation, you must be thinking about something else.

two men shake hands during a negotiation as counterparts look on

To get the negotiation outcomes you’re hoping for, you need to monitor your eye contact like you would your other body language

Whether your tendency is to avoid eye contact or engage in too much eye contact, learning to regulate and maintain an optimal level of eye contact will be beneficial.  Particularly when positive, negotiation outcomes are your goal. 

If You Make Too Much Eye Contact

Do you tend to stare at people when you talk or when you’re thinking? If so, you have to make a conscious effort to avoid that behavior.

There are a few things you can do to control staring. Let’s start with including self-talk about your tendency to stare as part of your mindset preparation. Your self-awareness of the issue helps in mitigating it. When engaging in conversation, occasionally look upward, to the right. This conveys thinking and that you are paying attention. Occasionally, briefly direct your eyes over or past the side of your counterpart's head using this as a way to break the stare. Additionally, when you're in cloud-based video communications, set an object of interest to you just past your camera. An occasional glance in that direction will also help to minimize staring during negotiations/conversations. With enough practice and commitment to improving the issue, employing these techniques will help to reduce your propensity to engage in too much eye contact.

When you’re overtly avoiding eye contact, you must balance it with other signals that show you are engaged with the conversation. Using minimal encouragers—such as nodding your head in the affirmative or saying mm-hmm—will convey that you’re paying attention and listening to what your counterpart has to say. Additionally, Labels and Mirrors, along with the Encouragers are great skills that are available to you to reinforce attentiveness.

If You Don’t Make Enough Eye Contact

Are you naturally shy and generally avoid engaging in eye contact? If you tend to disengage with your counterpart and stare into proverbial space, you will have to make a conscious effort to remind yourself to reengage the other side with eye contact. The same applies here with mental preparation. Remind yourself prior to the engagement of how important eye contact with your counterpart is to your negotiation. One tip here is, try to engage, avert your eyes, then re-engage. This will take practice and a lot of self-talk. With time it should feel more natural. The result is more frequent eye contact with your counterpart.  

The upside to this is that as challenging as it is to regulate your eye contact, it will also be of equal or greater reward in accomplishing this task. You can do this!

If your excessive or lack of eye contact keeps you awake at night, practice is key. Carve some time out of your day to practice with friends and family. Add other contacts whom you encounter as you go about your day, such as, your waiters or baristas and or store clerks. 

When you get enough repetitions, eye contact will come more naturally for you. Your counterpart will know you are attentive and are listening to them, and that you understand what they are trying to tell you.

When to Use Eye Contact

Any time you are in a conversation with someone. You should be using eye contact throughout your negotiation. Striking a balance may prove difficult for those of you who struggle with knowing when and how much eye contact to use,  Although you don’t want to go extreme—such as using Dynamic Silence™ while staring. You might send your counterpart running out of the room or at the least questioning your stability. Moderation is important. Just like adding seasoning to your favorite dish, you should sprinkle eye contact throughout the negotiation resulting in a more palatable and fruitful conversation.

When you want to give your counterpart space to think, you might say something while making eye contact for a few seconds before averting your eyes. When the counterpart responds, you should resume eye contact. Also, engaging in eye contact as a prompt is an indicator that you’re ready to say something, or it’s time for your counterpart to talk.

The right balance of eye contact can help you improve negotiation outcomes. To learn about behaviors you should avoid during negotiations, check out our infographic, The Top 3 Negotiation Mistakes.

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Barbara Thomas

About The Author

Barbara Thomas, having joined the team in June 2021 after retiring from three decades of service with the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD). During her time with the department, Barbara worked as a patrol officer and was selected to the SAPD Hostage Negotiation Team, where she served for 14 years. She was also assigned to the SAPD Training Academy, where she taught various academic subjects to police cadets. Additionally, Barbara worked undercover while assigned to the Repeat Offenders Program. During that time, she was also assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, where she worked with federal agencies on terrorism-related activities. On top of this, Barbara worked as a recruiter for the SAPD’s Recruitment Unit. Upon being promoted to the rank of Detective Investigator, she was assigned as a Uniformed Evidence Detective where I processed crime scenes. She was then selected to the Crisis Response Team, where she worked as a Family Violence Detective and was also assigned to work with the Joint County and City Domestic Violence Task Force. Prior to and during the beginning of her career in law enforcement, Barbara was an active duty and reserve member of the United States Air Force (USAF) for a combined 14 years of service. In her first job after technical training school, Barbara worked as a jet engine mechanic servicing B-52 Bombers and KC-135 Tankers. She then cross-trained into the intelligence field where she worked as an intelligence analyst.