9 Ways to Show You’re Listening (Without Making Eye Contact)

I used to think that if I didn’t make eye contact, it was the end of the world, socially speaking. Why did I think that? Because everyone told me so. “Look me in the eyes. Eyes, Lucy. Eyes. You’re not looking at me. Come on. I need you to listen. Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes –”

And so on, ad infinitum.

Then I met Isabelle Morris, Neurodiversity Program coordinator at Stanford, Autistic extraordinaire. We talked for about an hour, she didn’t look at me once, and it was one of the best conversations I’d ever had.

Myth officially busted.

Now, I ration eye contact energy. If I’m going to meet someone on whom I want to make a good impression, I make lots of eye contact. That could be a professor I’m meeting for the first time, someone I’d like to be friends with, a person with whom I’ll interact a lot, or anything along those lines. Random people in a dining hall or class get zero eye contact. I don’t mean to be rude, but realistically, if I make ‘typical’ eye contact with every person I encounter, I’ll be fatigued and overwhelmed all the time. Sometimes, I just tell people directly, ‘I prefer not to make eye contact, but I’m listening to you.’

Shortly after the Isabelle conversation, I came to another realization: in addition to just telling people I don’t like eye contact, I can do tons of other things to show I’m listening – and so can you.

1. Nod as they talk and say any of the following at semi-regular intervals:

  • “Uh-huh.”
  • “That’s interesting.”
  • “That’s really interesting.”
  • “Sounds cool.”
  • “Totally.”
  • “For sure.”
  • “No way.”
  • “Oh, okay.”
  • “Yeah.”
  • “Oh, wow.”

2. Glance at their face periodically, or at least angle your body in their direction. You can think of the eye contact thing as a bull’s eye target. If you hit the eye, you win a zillion points for being super neurotypical. If you look at their hairline, eyebrows, or bridge of nose, that’s approximately one zillion minus 6 (but really, they won’t be able to tell the difference). The farther out you get, the less typical it seems. If your gaze is darting all over the place, the other person might assume that you’re totally uninterested in the conversation or that you’re itching to leave.

3. Mimic what they’re doing. Not in a creepy fashion, but in an “I’m trying to make my face match the tone of this conversation” way. I like to observe what the other person does with their face and then do the same thing, but toned down a bit. They’re smiling widely? I smile slightly. They’re laughing loudly? I laugh slightly. Or loudly, if they’re funny.

4. Frown a little as you nod. This makes it look like you’re thinking really deeply about something. However, this tends to work better with more substantial conversation, not the hi-how-are-you-so-nice-to-meet-you stuff. I often use the frown-and-nod technique for lectures, and then periodically, I’ll realize that I’ve been nodding for three minutes straight, like a bobblehead. Autism is so fun.

5. Wear. A. Mask. In doing so, you can help stop this wretched pandemic and expend less energy controlling your facial expressions from the cheeks down.

6. Learn the difference between fake and real smiles. Real smile: the edges of your eyes crinkle. Fake smile: your mouth curves, but the rest of your face is stiff. This is a good way to a) make yourself look genuinely happy about something and b) see if other people are genuinely happy about something.

7. Pay attention to what the other person is saying, rather than what you’re going to say next. I often find myself thinking so much about whatever comment I want to make that I lose track of the conversation (especially with multiple people). I also have this delightful tendency to change the topic with incredible abruptness, because my thoughts just jumped to a totally unrelated subject and I’m bad at segues. Or there is a very logical connection, but it only exists in my brain and the other person can’t read my mind. My friends are used to this…um…unique conversational style, but when I’m with people I don’t know, or I need to make a good impression, I try to reign it in. 

8. If you don’t understand something, you could just nod and pretend to understand if it’s not that big a deal, or if you’re not very interested in continuing the conversation. If you want clarification about what they meant, you can ask:

  • “Sorry, could you explain that part again?”
  • “Wait, so they didn’t let you switch out of the course?”
  • “What do you mean when you say…”

9. Make sure not to interrupt them. If someone stops talking for more than a quick pause, that probably means that it’s your turn to respond. If you and the other person start talking at the same time, you can stop and say, “Oh, sorry. Go on.”

See, it’s not that complicated after all. In conclusion: No eye contact? No problem!

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