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The power of eye contact — even with strangers

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Rawpixel.com | Shutterstock
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Looking people in the eye can be uncomfortable, but it's a simple way to change the world.

Has anyone ever said to you, “Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you!”?

As annoying as it might be to get called out like that, the person has a point. Eye contact is powerful. There are many studies that show how it can make you fall in love or land a job. But making eye contact with another person is also just plain humanizing, especially if you live in a big city or in a place where smiling and looking at each other is not the norm. In fact, eye contact not only make us more empathetic, it quite literally changes the culture.

At a basic level, eye contact is a way to empower others. This is easy to understand if you’ve experienced it before. When someone looks at you, and you look back at them, you feel acknowledged. You feel seen. And you have the power to give other people that experience quickly and simply. If you don’t make eye contact with people very often, the first step is to start with people you interact with every day: the cashier on your snack run, your coworkers, your server on your dinner date.

Then, take it a step further once you’ve made eye contact a habit. Look at people you don’t normally interact with. For example, there are some people whom no one ever looks at, like the homeless. As this article points out, imagine if almost everyone who encountered you during the day refused to look at you. You would start to feel less human. Simple recognition via eye contact can change that. Whether you’re acknowledging a coworker, a friend, or a stranger, looking them in the eyes goes a long way to making them feel more accepted and seen in the world. And at a time when people can barely look up from their phones, eye contact goes a long way in affecting people positively.

The only caveat to this eye contact lifestyle is your intention. If you’re looking at people just to look at them, that’s a good start. But a way to deepen the experience, and make it truly helpful to both you and the other person, is to look at them person with affirmation. If you make eye contact with someone and are disgusted by them and look away quickly, those emotions will be pretty clear on your face. When we look at people with the intention of showing them that you’re happy they exist, that shows on our face, too. Practically speaking, that might mean smiling or nodding or waving in addition to eye contact. If it feels awkward at first, that’s completely normal.

Push past the awkward, because eye contact will make your life better in a myriad of ways. The more you force yourself to look at people, the more you can see their humanity. And the more you notice and observe humanity, the more empathetic you will become. In turn, the more people feel acknowledged and seen, the greater their self-worth grows. And the chain can continue if they pay it forward by looking at others more. When someone feels a little more appreciated in this screen-filled and lonely world of ours, there’s no telling what might open up for them. Sometimes the littlest things make the biggest difference.

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