116

I am a newly promoted engineering supervisor, with a team of four engineers reporting to me. I have worked with them for several years before being promoted and we have a great, friendly dynamic. That has not changed, but what has changed is that I now have 1-on-1 meetings with them to discuss their tasks and performance (all great, no hard conversations). In these meetings, we sit across from each other and talk.

Two of my engineers are clearly uncomfortable in this set up, unable to maintain eye contact and so look around the room as they talk most of the time. It doesn’t bother me that they are looking around, but I don’t know what to do myself in this situation. I want my employees to be comfortable and able to talk openly to me. They don’t interact with customers so I have no need to change them, and they are both excellent at their jobs.

My natural response is to just keep looking at them and smiling, but I worry this is not helpful. Looking away myself feels dismissive. I am hoping someone who doesn’t like eye contact can offer me some tips!

I’m asking what I can do body language wise to reduce their nervousness. The relationships are good, we just never had conversations like this before as peers (one on one, task-focused) and so I don’t have any experience to inform me.

Does me keeping looking at them make it worse? Should I try to look away more? Should I try to ditch the sitting across from each other and try sitting on the same side of a table?

Second Edit: Thank you so much, everyone! I’ll add a couple of things for further clarification, but I have great ideas for improvements thanks to y’all.

Intimidation is not a significant factor - I came in as the ‘lead’, formed the good relationship I reference, was the only one who went for the promotion — I was the obvious choice, and there were no hard feelings. It was a very seamless transition. I imagine there are some nerves present as we move through this transition, but I generally think it’s more about who they are as people (some don’t like eye contact!).

One is male and another one is female, so it is not obviously gendered. There are two other engineers who make an ‘expected’ amount of eye contact, so these two I am discussing are a contrast in their lower amount in the same situation. They do make eye contact with me at intervals, I just think they, as people, don’t like eye contact very much. If just not messing with them is sufficient, wonderful! That’s what I’m hearing.

I don’t know they are uncomfortable necessarily, more like, I, a social person, have not encountered this situation and myself am uncomfortable. Based on input, they don’t care what I do really, which is a relief!

  • 14
    Do you bring anything with you to meetings, things you might have to glance at every so often? Like a notepad for example. – Kozaky Mar 21 at 14:34
  • Do you think they have developed an inferiority-complex? Because, not long ago you were working with them as a colleague (same level, I assume), and now you have been promoted as a Supervisor? – Dashamlav Mar 21 at 14:40
  • 4
    Did you notice this behavior also before becoming their superior? Were they avoiding eye contact when you were also peers, when discussing tasks at your desks or when you meet them for lunch? – Xander Mar 21 at 14:42
  • 7
    Did you try sitting on the same side of the table? – BЈовић Mar 22 at 9:54
  • 7
    "Two of my engineers are clearly uncomfortable in this set up, unable to maintain eye contact and so look around the room as they talk most of the time." Are they actually uncomfortable? I don't always maintain a lot of eye contact, and as long as the person I'm talking with doesn't mind that, the fact that I'm not maintaining eye contact lets me remain comfortable. What would be uncomfortable is if I had to try to maintain eye contact. Are you asking them to do that? – Joshua Taylor Mar 22 at 17:41

15 Answers 15

256

Go take a walk around the block while you two talk. That's what we do here and it works pretty well.

  • 23
    Have to upvote this - takes out the "pressure" of a room etc etc – Solar Mike Mar 21 at 15:48
  • 15
    Signed up to upvote. Gets people out of their chairs as well, which has its own benefits. – miken32 Mar 21 at 16:12
  • 11
    This is a great answer. When people are uncomfortable in a situation and you don't want to change them, don't try to 'fix' the problem, just change the situation so the problem disappears. – davnicwil Mar 21 at 16:13
  • 6
    No, you were talking about "pressure" of a room which is an entirely different thing. The room is not at fault but the fact that some people feel awkward facing other people. You could have people seated side by side in a room and it would likely work just as well as a walk. And most likely there's no "pressure" at fault. It's not the perception of high expectations or seriousness that causes people to avoid eye contact. They are just a bit socially awkward, that's all. – user31389 Mar 21 at 16:32
  • 4
    I've seen this a couple times now, and it really is a neat way to get quick 1-on-1 meetings without the tension inherent in sitting down in a little room together. – Steve-O Mar 21 at 19:21
212

I'm one of those people

I believe you are reading too much into this!

Don't start with team-building exercises, surveys, etc. Leave it be.

If you are getting the results you need from these sessions, that's what matters.

Some people just naturally don't like eye contact in one-on-one conversations. Me included! That includes me being in positions of power or otherwise.

Look wherever you want. The important thing is you listen and respond.

  • 40
    I was about to answer exactly the same. People are just introverts or don't like eye contact. People going overboard methinks. – Xander Mar 21 at 14:45
  • 45
    If we aren't looking at you, we don't know where you're looking :) Do whatever you want. Dance if you want. – Gregory Currie Mar 21 at 14:59
  • 15
    @user35316 as someone else who also feels uncomfortable with eye contact, please understand that "taking the social pressure off" won't solve the problem, because it is not necessarily a problem! Don't take a lack of eye contact as meaning they feel uncomfortable. It's entirely possible that encouraging them to make eye contact will just make them more uncomfortable -- if they even are. – Captain Man Mar 21 at 16:00
  • 14
    @user35316, I know I do this too, and it has nothing to do with social pressure or discomfort. I just simply have a hard time maintaining eye contact while thinking about the answer to whatever question you just asked me. If I'm thinking about looking at your eyes, I'm not thinking about the conversation we're having. It's just not how my brain works. – Seth R Mar 21 at 18:18
  • 10
    I also avoid constant eye contact with people. I don't think OP should assume any social pressure. I'm not shy, anxious, or particularly introverted. I just find it weird to stare down the person I'm speaking to. Not to mention there are other interesting things to look at than your chin. So I look around. – Fadecomic Mar 21 at 19:33
56

I've been in similar situations where people were unable to look me in the eye whilst in a 1-1 meeting. It was pretty clear that they weren't feeling inferior but rather socially awkward/anxious and slightly introvert.

I tried different things and what seemed to work well was sitting next to the person instead of across from them during 1-1s and use a laptop or notes between us to focus on. Most of the time I was focused on the screen while talking and that gave the opportunity to the other person to talk while looking at the screen or notes.

If you're happy with the meetings' outcome and you're able to communicate fine with your subordinates, then I'd simply try to find a layout for these meetings that makes them more comfortable.

  • 14
    Was going to suggest this if no one else had. Most men are socialized to interact side by side or around an activity and not face-to-face, since face-to-face means head-to-head which is combative. – Dedwards Mar 21 at 16:06
  • 7
    Don't assume all men are combative. – stannius Mar 21 at 21:46
  • 13
    Nobody discussing the "spectrum" yet? They are engineers after all. Eye contact is pretty intrusive. Insisting upon it can open up a world of problems. Some people just don't. – mckenzm Mar 22 at 3:24
  • 2
    Upvoted @Jannis. As a very technical engineer type, I think eye contact has little value. Show me proof, calculations or results. The rest is just fluff for those that need it (girls?) – MikeM Mar 23 at 2:37
  • 1
    Sitting side by side may just worsen the problem. Why not just ditch the concept of eyes, face and body being a requirement in communication - because, they are not. It's just the people like you who seem to need these actually unecessary things. Introverts, aspies and the like have the ability to get along without all those energy wasters. – phresnel Mar 23 at 5:55
30

Something that hasn't been mentioned is that they may be thinking.

When you ask me a technical question, I mentally fire up the equipment and software I'd use to work on the problem for real and then run through possible solutions or approaches.

I'm mentally looking at things that are somewhere else. My eyes just rove and have very little to do with what I'm looking at.

I might "park" my peepers staring at blank section of wall or out a window. If I'm really far away, they just stop wherever they were pointed - which may be at you or someone else, causing creepy feelings of "why's he staring at me?"

So, if you are having a one on one discussion and your coworker is staring off into space, he may be really busy trying to find a solution. Anything you do to prevent them from "spacing out" might cause you to lose out on a better solution to your problems.

  • 4
    I do this too, looking off into space while I think about my answer, but when I'm done thinking I cycle back to eye contact, at least momentarily. The OP didn't mention if the cycling back ever happens or not. – Karl Bielefeldt Mar 22 at 3:08
  • 3
    Was going to post a similar answer. I find that having ADHD means I often cannot focus on both the discussion and the environment (including the person) at the same time. This means, if I'm making eye contact during a conversation, it's highly likely I'm not paying nearly the same amount of attention to the object of the discussion. It has nothing to do with being uncomfortable in my case. I noticed Elon Musk does that a lot, too. – Marc.2377 Mar 23 at 2:10
  • Most people move their eyes while they're thinking. That's just what we do. I'm not sure if there are statistically significant directions that we glance while thinking, but I've heard there are. – Wayne Werner Mar 26 at 14:51
14

The individuals in question could be on the autism spectrum such Asperger's Syndrome which is high functioning autism . Such individuals have difficulty with eye contact and are uncomfortable in social situations. This is offset by intense focus on a field of study that they become extremely good at what they do. As for body language I have noticed that they have a hard time correctly interpreting it. You mentioned that one is male and one is female. Asperger's manifests itself differently in men and women.

  • This answer should be the right one. Being diagnosed with Aspergers myself, I found myself in the OP's description right from the start. And my best advice to the OP is (assuming they really are on the autism spectrum): Don't change your behaviour, just leave it be. If they ignore the social pressure to keep eye contact, it means they are already as comfortable with you as they can be. Changing your behaviour just reduces their comfort because they will notice that and need to interpret your new behaviour. – orithena Mar 22 at 14:43
  • 3
    Also, yes, many of us autists do have a hard time interpreting the body language of non-autists. In addition, we have a very hard time when trying to "read between the lines". It gets way easier when dealing with other autists, though. – orithena Mar 22 at 14:45
  • 3
    I find a pint or two usually fixes it :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 22 at 16:56
  • 1
    @orithena As the neural -typicals might say " It takes one to know one". I was diagnosed as an adult with A.S shortly after my son was diagnosed with it as a child. – Old_Fossil Mar 23 at 4:40
  • 2
    @MikeM That explains a lot in my own life as well. A woman's body language is far more subtle than a man's. I knew a woman for 30 years and had no idea that she was into me....until one Christmas Eve..she finally figured out subtlety wasn't working. – Old_Fossil Mar 23 at 4:47
8

I myself find that I can listen better if I'm not making an effort to maintain eye contact. After all, you listen with your ears, not your eyes. Because of this, my own eyes tend to wander during conversation, whether I'm any kind of nervous or not.

It may be the same for these individuals. You don't know, so don't make assumptions. If they are performing well and can remember what was discussed, it doesn't really matter that they don't maintain eye contact with you, and no additional action is needed.

  • 2
    “You listen with your ears, not your eyes.” This is just straight up wrong. There have been studies that have shown that something like 90% of communication is nonverbal. If you want to do a good job as a listener, you need to use both. – nick012000 Mar 22 at 5:08
  • 3
    @nick012000 that's a very oft misquoted study, and the real amount is much lower, and much of it is tone of voice, which you pick up with your ears as well. – Erik Mar 22 at 8:54
  • 2
    @nick012000 And we're not talking about conversations with emotional subtexts, necessarily. These are very likely pretty technical conversations, so body language plays much less of a role. – bvoyelr Mar 22 at 12:45
  • 2
    @nick012000 To be fair, I don't have to maintain eye contact to read body language, and I have become very good at reading slight nuances in the other's voice. And I promise that if I could see my conversation partner but not hear them, I definitely would not pick up 90% of their meaning. – MrSpudtastic Mar 22 at 14:16
4

You mention:

In these meetings we sit across from each other and talk.

Why do you sit across each other? Just write down the things you want to talk about, and say to that person that you want to discuss the points you have written down. The best way to do this is to sit next to each other. While sitting like that, both of you look at the paper and there's no need anymore for having eye-contact.

  • 5
    The downvote is not mine, but you don't need the paper. In terms of body language, sitting across is really not optimal, since it is confrontational. However, sitting next to each other is not optimal either and the paper is defenitely distracting from the conversation. A good option would be to do without the paper and sit perpendicular, which is a good seating order in a cooperative setup. If you change your answer in that direction, you have my upvote. – Sefe Mar 22 at 8:25
  • that's right. Sitting accros eachother is confrontational....sitting NEXT to each other is the easiest solution here! – user1841243 Mar 22 at 12:17
  • I agree with you, opposite each other may be uncomfortable. I usually sit in a 90 degree angle, when sitting next to each other may be too familiar. That way you're close without crossing eyes all the time. – reinierpost Mar 22 at 18:31
  • @reinierpost: Tha's what I meant with perpendicular: a 90° angle... – Sefe Mar 23 at 8:14
2

Does me keeping looking at them make it worse?

Not directly (see below).

Should I try to look away more? Should I try to ditch the sitting across from each other and try sitting on the same side of a table?

No need. It's not you looking at them that's the problem, it's their discomfort looking at you.

There is potentially an added discomfort imbued by the expectation that when someone looks at you, you look back (so the coworker may feel an element of "obligation" that they cannot fulfil, causing further discomfort).

But, in my personal experience, I wouldn't worry too much about your approach here, as long as you're not actively rebuking them for not giving eye contact back (which would suck because, for some people, it's genuinely really, really hard).

That being said, there are some excellent suggestions in other answers (e.g. having a "walking meeting") that nix the entire problem at source; that way you can eliminate any issue at all, provided these ideas fit in well with your workflow and daily structure.

1

Others have contributed some good thoughts. Some personal perspective:

  1. What sort of training has your employer provided for those new to management? Do they provide skill building materials?
  2. Social skills are a bit less relevant if the job isn't customer facing.
  3. Try not to judge employee on looking in eye, but more on whatever their positive qualities are, and your assessment of their contributions.
  4. Do not make assumptions on character, rush to judgement, or over-simplify based on a few observations.
  5. Don't discuss with other managers at your level. Not necessarily their business...
  6. You do have a mentor responsibility, so think about what that entails and whether social skills are relevant. 6.a. I've done customer facing work, and not always handled it the best. In that case I was fortunate to have a manager that could skillfully address it, and identify areas to improve, and highlight good parts (so I'm not demoralized). Keep in mind I was hired partially due to better social skills. 6.b. The other side, purely internally focused work. Just keep in mind everyone is not created equal and some people will not be able to "improve" their social skills. That's OK. Then focus more on whether tasks are getting done, quality of work, etc.
  • I would agree with everything but #5. You can discuss with other managers as they are now your peer group, and would likely have valuable feedback/suggestions. You can avoid talking about specific people, but overall, it's fine to speak with people at your level. I do think that it is better to speak with colleagues outside of the company, or if you have a mentor, speak with them. – Malisbad Mar 22 at 6:15
  • Thanks, Sounds like a better take on what I wrote. I would worry a new manager might share too much with peers. – learning2learn Mar 22 at 10:05
1

If you have been working with them for a long time and have now become their "superior" this is common to happen. They may have the problem of trying to separate the relationship they used to have with the one they have now.

There are a few things you can try.

  1. Just give them the room they need, if their performance is not lacking and motivation seems to be the same, leave it as it is. Continue looking at them while they speak and remain professional.

  2. If you have worked with them for that long and feel the relationship exists there, ask them. While you are on the 1-on-1 tell them you have noticed that they don't seem to be fully comfortable and ask them if they prefer a different approach to the 1-on-1.

  3. Use an anonymous survey to the entire team regarding current processes, including 1-on-1, PDP and PDR.

As you said, they are not going to be customer facing, but it is also good to give them the opportunity to develop their interpersonal skills.

  • I don't understand the downvote on this one. This seems pretty valid. – GustavoMP Mar 21 at 16:09
  • 8
    @GustavoMP I'm not the downvoter but the general trend in low score answers to this question is that they assume there's something wrong, the employees are nervous, etc. The truth is some people simply are uncomfortable looking other people in the eyes in any kind of situation or don't know where they are supposed to look or think looking at other person too long would be considered rude. There is nothing wrong with the workplace nor the supervisor. – user31389 Mar 21 at 16:27
  • @user31389 with that I can agree – GustavoMP Mar 21 at 16:29
0

In America, it's common for companies to do "team-building" exercises. They usually consist of the team going to lunch, or having a gathering off site with families, even. It's to allow people get to know each other in casual situations, and this can help with a person viewing their boss/manager as a person, not just an authority to be scared of.

Perhaps this isn't an option, but for whatever reason they seem to fear you. Might just be a cultural thing...but you need to try to find a way to break through that.

  • 2
    Doesn't seem like they fear him from what he said. – kiradotee Mar 21 at 17:09
0

Although there are some good examples of things you can do to get around this uncomfortable feeling mentioned by others.

The main thing here should be to build your coworkers confidence (restless eyes are caused by nerves and lack of confidence) rather than find more ways they can avoid eye contact. Eye contact is a very important skill and should not be overlooked as it's the main way to connect during conversation. It's not something that should be avoided no matter who you are.

That being said

(all great, no hard conversations)

They might not be uncomfortable but just nervous during these 121's. You get what you need and conversation is still flowing. If colleagues were uncomfortable there would likely be rushed speech or stutters along with lack of eye contact

  • 7
    There are many cultures that do not view "Eye Contact" as an important business or professional skill. For example, I work with Japanese partners where the business culture in meetings is to look down and "listen" with perhaps the exception of the person being directly addressed, even closing eyes is considered normal, and it took me a while to get used to speaking at meetings and to trust that they are listening intently even if they look like they are sleeping (although, sometimes they are). – crasic Mar 21 at 18:01
  • 1
    "Restless eyes are caused by nerves and lack of confidence" that is not true for me. I have a hard time looking people in the eye, but I would definitely not be categorized as someone lacking confidence or having nerves. I simply don't like to. It's never caused me any problems in business, in fact, i think it has helped, because too much eye contact can be seen as rude and aggressive where I am (pnw in the US) – user87779 Mar 21 at 21:58
0

Although this question has been answered already, I am trying to include my 2 cents. By reading your question, you said:

I don’t know they are uncomfortable necessarily, more like, I, a social person, have not encountered this situation and myself am uncomfortable. Based on input, they don’t care what I do really, which is a relief!

Don't judge people if they are uncomfortable. Especially during meetings some people don't make eye contact, because they stare in space to digest/understand the important points and trying to match if it relates to their questions. Usually people are uncomfortable if they don't know the answer or afraid of being asked what they have not fulfilled or done before.

So, I'd say try to make more friendly conversation with individuals by 1:1 coffee or walk. You can ask issues which are bothering them or something they can't talk during the meeting. Try to grill down to the level where they are confident to disclose if anything in their mind and assure them that will be taken care. I believe this will help maintain good healthy relations with them if you convince them. At the end of the day you're on higher position, there's always respect and little one step back bonding always there in them.

  • What do you mean by "little one step back bonding always there in them" (seemingly incomprehensible)? – Peter Mortensen Mar 22 at 21:17
0

As someone who tended to avoid eye contact when younger, I also think you are giving too much importance to it.

When younger I had some personal confidence and privacy issues, which are not all related to my culture, and people actually complained I did not pay attention to them just because I did not look them right on the eye.

Actually with age, hundreds and meetings and life experience - including some failed relationships because of being shy, nowadays I interact pretty much as expected.

Just be aware this might be a learned skillset for some people.

-1

Most likely they are nervous. Many employees will feel nervous talking to their manager 1 on 1. Add the fact that you are their new manager, talking about their tasks and performance and this nervous factor can increase. Add the fact that they are engineers, who in many cases are introverts, and you can understand how elevated their nerves must be.

There isn't anything to change on your part as far as smiling and looking at them. What you can do, before the meeting, is try to calm them down and make it clear that the meeting isn't an official review or that they aren't being punished for anything.

  • 4
    I am not the person OP is talking about but I am like them, I do not do well with eye to eye contact. Nothing to do with nerves. I just do not like it. (I might be Autistic, but high functional and have not other problems.) – Willeke Mar 21 at 19:54

protected by mcknz Mar 22 at 21:55

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.