Eye contact may not be such a great way to persuade (Psychology Today)

Eye contact and selling

Is more eye contact the answer?

David DiSalvo recently wrote in Psychology Today about the latest research on the role of eye contact in persuasion. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it appears that in some circumstances too much direct eye contact can be detrimental to getting your point across.

From a sales perspective, this makes sense to me. If you have a relationship with the customer you will automatically tend to have more eye contact. If you don’t know them very well, or they are raising an objection then using too much eye contact can be interpreted as “staring them down”. One thing that I’m certain about is that avoiding eye contact never comes across well.

How and when you look someone in the eyes is such an innate thing that it’s quite difficult to deconstruct what you’re doing (the researchers in the quoted study used the latest eye-tracking technology). Also the sales dynamic should be qualitatively different from that in the study where participants are passively watching a speaker.  In sales we’re aiming for an active conversation with a customer not to just talk at them. So who is talking, who’s listening, who’s taking notes, who’s thinking, who’s presenting at any particular time will all affect eye contact.

In fact this scientific research seems to reinforce the old adage “telling isn’t selling”. Have a read of David’s piece (the first couple of paras are below) and let me know what you think?

Few popular beliefs are as unshakable as, “If you want to influence someone, always make direct eye contact.” But new research suggests that this bit of sturdy pop lore is hardly gospel—in fact, in many circumstances a direct gaze may result in the exact opposite effect.

Researchers from Harvard, the University of British Columbia and the University of Freiberg used newly developed eye-tracking technology to test the claim during two experiments. In the first, they had study participants watch a speaker on video while tracking their eye movements, and then asked how persuaded they were by the speaker. Researchers found that the more time participants spent looking into the speaker’s eyes, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument. The only time looking into the speaker’s eyes correlated with being influenced was when the participants already agreed with the speaker’s opinions.


2 Responses to Eye contact may not be such a great way to persuade (Psychology Today)

  1. Alen Mayer December 5, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Selling is fundamentally a question of the influence of mind over mind, and how the formula for developing a mind control is very simple. It is a study of the five senses and the manner in which they influence the mind, and a constant effort to apply in practice what you have learned.

    In learning to control the mind of the buyer, it is essential that the salesperson learn to appeal to each of the five senses successfully and to cultivate his own by practical exercises.

    How to train your senses?

    In all sense training the method used is to improve each one of the five senses by specific exercises. The most common evidence that this method is a correct one is found in the success with which those who lack one of the senses are trained to greater expertness in the use of others.

  2. Trent Hand December 6, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    Nice article Mark.

    I’m sure the findings are significant, though I question the research method’s application in the real world of selling. Rarely do we engage a client through a video screen, and in this case, the person watching has complete control over the amount of eye contact, as the speaker cannot see or adjust his eye contact to the viewer.

    Perhaps the people engaging in greater levels of eye contact are more suspicious and are looking for signs of deceit?

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