Communication Skills Blog

Today’s post is about a conundrum in persuasive dialogue. A recent study reported in Psychological Science suggests that eye contact may not be as important as we have always thought in persuasion attempts. The article, “In The Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion,” by four researchers from the University of Freiburg, University of British Columbia, and Harvard University, was based on experiments in which the researchers used eye-tracking technology on subjects watching videos of people attempting persuasion. They believe their experiments showed that when listeners look directly into the eyes of a speaker, it increases their resistance to attitude change in the direction the speaker is advocating.

The researchers ran two experiments. In each, they asked groups of students to watch videos of people making persuasive speeches. They used eye-tracking software to see exactly what the students were watching from moment to moment and administered questionnaires before and after to discover any change in attitude. What they found was that students who looked at the speakers’ eyes the most developed the most resistance to the speakers’ point of view. The effect was most pronounced when they looked directly in the speakers’ eyes, and when they were already ill-disposed to the viewpoint.

Like everyone else who teaches (or has ever taught) persuasion, we at Communispond teach students in our Persuasive Dialogue™Socratic Selling Skills®, and Executive Presentation Skills® courses to seek eye contact when they are trying to persuade an audience of any size. This new research, which you will probably be reading about all over the web, will not change our approach. Here’s why.

The new research comes out of the old model of persuasion: a speaker who manipulates an audience with charisma and rhetorical tricks. The old model views persuasion as just a smoother or more subtle version of argument. But the Communispond model of persuasion is based on the audience, not the speaker. We don’t believe you can ever argue (or even sweet-talk) someone into an opinion. Persuasive dialogue takes place when the speaker understands the goals of the audience and aligns them with the desired position. That is to say, persuasion is a cooperative process: the audience and the speaker must work together to produce a commitment.

It is true, as the researchers found, that when someone starts out disagreeing with you, and you establish eye contact, you are more likely to create resistance. That’s because eye contact, when used in the context of disagreement, is intimidating. That was, in fact, the original hypothesis this new research was based on: “Eye contact plays an important role in the competitive or hostile encounters of many species. For example, dogs stare opponents in the eye during dominance contests. In primates, direct eye gaze is a reliable activator of the fight-or-flight response. In humans, viewing an angry expression that is combined with direct gaze activates the amygdala, a brain region responsive to potential threats.” (Citations removed.) But when you are engaging in persuasive dialogue with an audience in agreement or in a neutral position, eye contact is less threatening than it is inviting.

Persuasion in the Communispond model means working together. Working together requires trust, and trust requires eye contact. Persuasive dialogue without eye contact is a contradiction. There’s a reason when someone doesn’t trust you, they will say, “Look me in the eye and say that.”

So we will continue to advise learners to seek eye contact in persuasive dialogue, and we will continue to teach them ways to minimize or eliminate the disagreements that turn that eye contact into a threat.


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