Most young children have no trouble with eye contact. They will look people in the eye with innocent curiosity without being self-conscious; it is very natural. As we grow up, making eye contact can become more difficult, uncomfortable and for some, even embarrassing. I attended a course a few years ago that included an exercise around eye contact. We were asked to sit in pairs, and then very simply, look into each other’s eyes, without looking away or talking, for 10 minutes; very simple instructions. But what a strange and hard thing it was to do at first. The room was filled with nervous laughter as people began the exercise. It started off pretty well, but then after a few seconds, without any talking, it began to feel awkward (was my course partner staring at the wrinkles around my eyes? was my hair sticking up? did I have some of my breakfast on my face?). Finally, I began to relax and enjoy the experience; it is amazing how beautiful and expressive the eyes of another human being can be. And how much connection there is to another person when you really look at each other.
As a coach, I sometimes encounter clients who have difficulty with eye contact. This can very debilitating, affecting confidence at a job interview, making it hard to make new friends, and creating anxiety in social situations. One thing that can help is practice. In the check-out queue try making more eye contact and smile. Another suggestion is to watch someone who is good at using eye contact, in real life or even on TV and try copying what they do. And finally, if you can let go of your self-consciousness for a bit, notice what happens when you look another person in the eyes and really see them. It can be transforming.