Look away and Listen Better

Polite or rude?

In many cultures like in East Asia, sustaining eye contact with someone above you socially – professor, parent, or boss can be considered rude or defiant. However, in the West maintaining eye contact is usually taken as a sign of courtesy and attentiveness. Avoiding eye contact is thought to reflect, anxiety, socially stress, guilt, or some other negative personality trait. Avoidance can also be interpreted as boredom with the conversation.

Looking away may not be rudeness – even in the West

Those with weak or slow auditory processing tend to struggle to follow conversations and instructions. The difficulty they face listening is amplified if there is background noise or when listening to fast or indistinct speech. For many people, looking and listening is simply too much to process without overloading. So the solution is to look away to reduce the processing load. By looking away they can better concentrate on what you are saying. Looking away increases the chance that they will comprehend your message.

Research reveals why it is difficult for some to sustain eye contact

Scientists at Kyoto University have discovered that maintaining eye contact while listening to another sometimes overtaxes the brain’s capacity to “share cognitive resources.” So one breaks eye contact in order to better process what’s being said. The researchers found that study participants were able to respond quicker to difficult questions, if they broke eye contact.

Researchers suggest that while sustaining eye contact builds the connection with the other person, it is demanding on the brain. This is because eye contact and verbal processing “share cognitive resources.” Therefore multitasking (looking and listening) impose more stress on the brain. So they concluded that when we look away, “We are trying to keep our brains from overloading.” Source: Kajimura S, Nomura M. When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation. Cognition. 2016.

What do I observe in my clients?

Having assessed nearly 2,000 clients, I observe that many children with auditory processing disorder are unable to maintain eye contact when conversing. In other words, they need to look away in order to maximise their chance of understanding what you are saying and assembling a coherent answer. Their capacity to sustain eye contact diminishes dramatically when I start asking them about school. Especially when we start exploring the difficulties they face in the classroom or the playground.

If a child routinely avoids eye contact, then this is a sure sign that they are either frightened or overloading and most likely it is because they are overloading.

Be a detective and observe your children

Try hanging up your parent or teacher hat and dispassionately observe when the children under your care. Most children try their best to please and try to fit in. So ‘poor’ behaviour like looking away, fiddling or disrupting is a signal that they are struggling to cope and need help.

Allow others to look away while you talk to them

Please do not make the double mistake that I made with my children when I asked them, “sit still and look at me when I’m talking with you!” Unknowingly I was asking them to behave in a way that increased their chance of overloading by multitasking (looking and listening). I was also denying them the opportunity to increase their availability of dopamine by wriggling, fiddling and moving.

If you would like to take the next step with Harry Armytage, complete the listening scorecard here

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash