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Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth—But What About a Prospect?

Book after book about sales agrees: Direct eye contact is best. But new research tells us that if you look someone who disagrees with you straight in the eyes, your efforts to persuade may fail.

Frances Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, co-led the research. She says if the listener resists in the beginning of your interaction, direct eye contact can push him or her farther away.

Here’s what you do. “My advice to a speaker who wants to use eye contact in a persuasion attempt is to pay attention to the body language of the listener,” Chen says. If the listener seems to be receptive, go ahead and make eye contact. “However, if he or she seems upset or overwhelmed and starts looking away, trying to force direct eye contact might backfire.”

Researchers suggested that a direct stare could be interpreted as an attempt to dominate, which may be why it does not change minds. So, if you know you need to persuade a reluctant audience, where should you direct your gaze? In the study, speakers who focused on the listener’s mouth got better results.

You might not be able to look a gift horse in the mouth, but a prospect? It might just work.


Effective salespeople ask for—and obtain—commitments. Find out how to ask your dream clients for their business with updated closing tactics that are sure to help you make a deal.

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