Eye contact is an important aspect of social interaction, and it is something that many shy and socially anxious people have difficulty with. Often people with social anxiety describe looking someone in the eyes as anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable. This is likely due, in part, to genetic wiring -- studies have shown that people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have a stronger fear response than others. If you have SAD, the part of your brain that warns you of danger can be set off by something as simple as the gaze of a stranger.
Fortunately, with proper treatment including cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication, most people with SAD can learn to overcome this fear response and maintain better eye contact -- a key aspect of effective communication with others.
Communications expert Robert Graham offers training in delivering presentations, and one of his tips for good eye contact can be translated into conversational settings when speaking to more than one person:
When speaking to a group of people, instead of thinking of the group as a whole, imagine that you are having individual conversations with one person in the group at a time.
As you speak, choose one person in the group and pretend that you are talking just with that person. Look at him as you finish your thought or sentence. As you begin a new sentence or idea, choose another person in the group and look her in the eye as you finish your thought. Make sure that you eventually include everyone in the group.
What if looking someone in the eye is still too difficult? Choose a spot directly between or slightly above the listener’s eyes. If this doesn’t feel comfortable, try letting your eyes go slightly out of focus. This has the added benefit of softening and relaxing your gaze. Staring too intensely will turn people off and make them uncomfortable.
By employing some of these strategies for good eye contact, you will make your listeners feel more connected and increase the likelihood that you will feel more comfortable when speaking to a group of people.