I recently gave a seminar where we were discussing the importance of non-verbal skills. In that study, we talked about the famous Mehrabian study that found that only 6% of communication was the words. One major aspect of non-verbal communication is in the eyes. I recently saw an article on the specific issues related to the eyes written by FBI agent and counterintelligence agent Joe Navarro. Here is a brief excerpt of that article:
Our eyes also are formidable communicators of feelings including comfort and discomfort, which help us decipher others from a very tender age. The eyes reveal excitement at mom walking into the room but also reveal concern when we are troubled. Often what is not spoken out loud is expressed exquisitely in the eyes. In fact I was prompted to write this today as I was visiting a research colleague and her eyes, at a distance, told me something was wrong, her father had passed away.
While a mother’s eyes will reflect the hopelessness she may feel when her baby is hospitalized they conversely reveal the joy having found that the child is healthy and fine. Few things reflect our emotions as well or as rapidly as the eyes. Babies which are just several days old already respond to the eyes of the mother and can tell the difference between a squint and wide opened dilated eyes. Babies can tell the difference between a happy and contented mother and one who is stressed, just form looking at the yes.
The eyes serve as conduits of information we have relied on for thousands of years. We rely on them because of their accuracy. The man who is asked to help someone move will cover his eyes with his fingers rubbing them as he answers, “yes I will help you,” when no doubt this will be an inconvenience. This blocking behavior authentically reveals how he feels even though he will assist.
Eye blocking behaviors such as: covering of the eyes, shielding the eyes, lowering the eyelids for a prolonged period, delays in opening of the eyes is so hard wired in us that children who are born blind, when they hear something they don’t like will also cover their eyes. Obviously this behavior is hard wired, part of our paleo-circuits and represents an adaptation to stress or other negative stimuli which has served us well over millennia.
Eye blocking is just one of the more obvious things that we do. When we are troubled, frustrated, or struggling with something emotionally, our eyelids may also close hard and remain closed or the eyelids may flutter rapidly as an expression of our sentiment. Hugh Grant is famous in the movies for his eyelid flutter whenever he screws something up.
Research also shows that when we are nervous or troubled our blink rate increases, a phenomenon often seen with liars but also frequently seen with people under stress. I would not call anyone a liar just because their blink rate goes up although while studying Richard Nixon I did notice that when he was struggling with facts while talking to the press his blink rate went from about 12 per minute to 68 time per minute. Bill Clinton during his deposition showed a high blink rate at times in excess of 92 per minute, but again these were individuals under a lot of stress.
When interpreting eye behavior, many misconceptions exist. Little or no eye contact is erroneously perceived by some as a classic sign of deception, especially during questioning, while the truthful should “lock eyes.” This is not supported by research or experience and is completely false. In fact, Alder Vrij and others have found that liars tend to engage in greater eye contact because they know we are looking there for signs of deception.
Eye contact is in fact a social/cultural phenomenon that is practiced differently around the world.
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