The stakes were sky high in a recent #MeToo sexual harassment investigation. The events at issue happened years ago. It was looking like “he said/she said” until corroborating records surfaced that undermined the respondent’s account. What did he do when confronted with the evidence? Exactly what experienced investigators expect when someone’s career (and marriage) may be on the line. He looked the investigator straight in the eye and denied everything. He thought he was convincing, and common sense tells us he was. But common sense can be wrong.
Here are three tips to keep in mind about eye contact.
1. Get a baseline first. Obviously, eye contact depends a lot on culture, upbringing, and personality. If you haven’t taken time to assess carefully someone’s eye contact before “the moment of truth” in an investigation, question your judgment. We all know shy, honest people who won’t look you in the eye (especially these days, when people have become so naturally focused on their smartphones). Making uninformed, untested assumptions about eye contact can even spark an implicit bias claim.
2. A window to their soul? We are hard-wired to pay attention to eye contact in our everyday lives; we avoid it when we’re embarrassed or ashamed. But investigations are not everyday life. Research shows that the amount of eye contact is not connected to truthfulness and, more surprising, that experienced liars maintain eye contact more than truthful people do. So don’t confuse the conviction demonstrated by a steady, unswerving gaze for credibility. Usually, people backed into a corner in an investigation stare right at you because they’re angry and afraid. The primal region of their brain, their cerebellum, won’t let them avert their gaze from a clear threat: you.
3. It’s better to give than receive. Even though a witness’s eye contact may be questionable, yours should never be. As legendary Esquire journalist and expert interviewer Cal Fussman explained in a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, “I’m… looking straight into the eyes of the person I’m interviewing, and making them feel like the only thing that matters to me. And in fact, they are the only thing that matters to me in that moment.”
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