I can still hear my mother’s voice. “Look at me when I am talking to you” she would say to me if the conversation was important. Her comments left their mark on me. I find myself echoing her words in my head when I am having a conversation with someone who doesn’t bother to look up from their iPhone or computer screen as I talk.

Multitasking myth

I get it, you can multitask. You can listen to me and keep typing, texting or watching TV all at the same time. But as you multitask, are you really doing anything at your best? There is strong research to indicate you can’t do two things at once.

According to Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, the brain can’t multitask. What it actually does is shift focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. You’re not paying attention to two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.

In switching back and forth, you are likely to miss something. The more you focus on one of the two tasks, the less bandwidth you have for the other activity. Typos creep into your manuscript or you suddenly realize you heard the words, but don’t understand what someone has just said to you.

In addition, if you don’t take the time to look up, you miss subtle visual clues which convey things the speaker may not verbalize. Someone may tell you they are fine and nothing is bothering them. A quick look at their stance or facial expression however, may communicate something entirely different. A pause or a short sideways glance may tell you they are uncomfortable with the topic you are discussing. A roll of their eyes may indicate they don’t believe or agree with you.

Learning to catch and translate visual clues is like learning to read between the lines in the conversation. It is a handy communication skill to learn. If you don’t look up, you miss a wealth of information being communicated in the blink of an eye. Information which can be useful to win an argument, sell an idea or a product.

You are missing sales opportunities

Tradeshow basics – If  you want to get the most out of your trade show investment you need to talk to people as they walk by and invite them into your booth. If you are on your phone texting or tweeting and you don’t bother to look up and make eye contact with passers by, what happens? The people pass by and you miss a chance to make a sale.

What does it say about you?

In some cultures it is rude to look someone in the eye directly, but in most western cultures, eye contact is considered a sign of strength, confidence and manners. If someone doesn’t look up when we are talking, I assume they are distracted or simply uninterested. Yes, you can take my order at the lunch counter, point me in the right direction when I ask you where something is or accept an assignment, all without looking up. Unfortunately, you can’t make me feel as if you care about my business, or me, when you do.

What do you think? How important is it to look someone in the eye?

Then you can practice your eye contact skills at your next networking event.