By Jill Hinton Wolfe
There was a recent Quora thread asking, "What are useful social skills that can be picked up quickly?" I recommend heading over to the thread itself, because there are a lot of gems, but two things stood out to me as both critically important and easily implemented: Looking people in the eye and using their name in conversation.
Why are these two actions so powerful? Let's start with the science.
Authenticity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
In 2015 the New York Times ran one of its most popular articles ever, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This." The article really is worth your time to read (whether you've found the love of your life or not), but the basic premise is this: the author had a romantic interest in someone she knew, and he agreed to sit down with her and ask a set of 36 questions — each one more intense than the next. They then stared into each other's eyes for 4 minutes. Spoiler alert: They fell in love.
(It's unclear whether they are still in love. I'm guessing from the book she released in June 2017, they are, and will continue to be.)
The science of eye-gazing starts as infants
At just two days old, babies prefer faces that return their gaze. Just four months in, we humans process gazing faces more deeply, and at seven months old babies’ brains process direct eye contact that's just 50 milliseconds (too fast to consciously be aware of it) differently from an averted gaze. Three and four year olds often believe they're invisible if they cover their eyes, or even just look away. Kids who have autism — which is often defined as having difficulty understanding emotions — often have great difficulty holding eye contact.
Great for babies and children — but what about grownups?
As adults, making direct eye contact immediately causes us to become more self-conscious (anyone who's been on a blind date can attest to that). Apparently, direct eye contact also takes up a more brain power than typical cognitive tasks. Which may explain why the people who are best at eye contact know when to take breaks to keep the situation from being too intense — we need that extra brainpower to think!
Now here's where we get into the good stuff:
The research also says that people who consistently avoid eye contact are seen as more insincere and less conscientious (especially if you're a woman — which sucks, but also isn't surprising given what we know about culture). Alternatively, we’re more likely to believe what people say when they maintain eye contact.
And there's the rub: Being believable, which is closely related to competence, is how we authentically connect to each other. I go to networking events and regularly reach out to new people for a variety of reasons, but ultimately it's because I want to be seen as believable. And eye contact does that.
I was recently listening to this Tim Ferriss interview with Uber Chief Brand Ambassador Bozoma Saint John. It's an incredible interview on a number of levels, but one topic that stood out is Arianna Huffington's uncanny ability to make you feel special, like you're the only one in the room. Ferriss and Saint John both attribute it to her eye contact — which directly conveys her presence.
And isn't presence — being present — what we're all striving for much of the time? Don't we want to give people the attention they deserve? Everyone wants to be seen, to be understood, to be heard. It's pretty much one of the greatest gifts you can give someone you just met.
Eye contact: it's one of those things that's actually BOTH as easy and as effective as people claim it is.
But what's another trick to making eye contact even MORE powerful? Keep reading.
The Power of Name Calling
Beyonce said it best.
Using someone's name when you greet them, and then sprinkling it (again, appropriately) throughout the conversation is a quick and easy way to demonstrate that you care about them, are interested in who they are and value their input. Saying their name has the double benefit of also helping you not forget their name.
But are you like me, and often have trouble remembering people's names?
My husband is actually a cognitive psychologist who does a lot of work in the memory field, so I asked him (nothing like having an expert sitting next to you on the couch when writing a blog post). I'll spare you the long explanation, but basically we have limited capacity to store stuff, which is why mnemonics can be so helpful. Someone once suggested to me that I should imagine a person's name written on their forehead — minimally effective.
But you know what really helps?
You guessed it: Saying their name. An even MORE effective memory trick is to say their name while introducing them to someone else. Now you're a networking ninja.
Now you have two very powerful tools in your networking toolbox — or your toolbox that you just use to make people feel valued and liked. So the next time you want to make a connection with someone, don't forget to stare them down and call them names (you know what I mean).
Co-founder Jill Hinton Wolfe is a communicator, entrepreneur and Army veteran who is passionate about the outdoors and designing surprising and unique challenges for all sorts of clients, all over the world.