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Eye contact. Ever stop to think about the implications of making it-or not? I did after a long-distance phone conversation with a friend. She remarked that one of her coworkers was "such a good nurse." The problem, bless her heart, was that many people didn't realize it because she rarely made eye contact with anyone. My friend concluded that her coworker probably just lacked social skills-a shortcoming that would certainly hold her back from getting the recognition she deserved in her career. Too bad she doesn't realize it.
After we ended the conversation, I had a vivid memory of being 5 years old and excitedly telling Mr. D, our next door neighbor, about my new tricycle. He knelt down on the sidewalk so that we were at eye level and said, "Whenever you talk to people, always look them straight in the eye." I'll admit to being rather terrified at the time. But throughout my childhood, Mr. D never let me forget that vital point. His lesson was a gift.
Eye contact is one of those social skills that some people are more comfortable with than others. And there's often a thin line between too little and too much: the interpretation depends on the situation as well as the cultural norm. In certain societies, direct eye contact is considered rude. Even in the animal kingdom (of which we are a part), it can be perceived as a challenge or a threat.
Then again, in our society, minimal to no eye contact can communicate aloofness or indifference. People on the receiving end may feel dismissed or neglected. Worse yet is the uneasy sense that the person isn't trustworthy or has something to hide. At the other extreme is an impression of weakness or insecurity.
So, what's a nurse to do? Recognize the power of eye contact and the messages it can communicate. At minimum, eye contact conveys acknowledgement. The body language that follows from both parties makes or breaks the interaction. These social nuances should factor into any interpersonal exchange. Developing the ability to discern how to communicate effectively using both words and self is the foundation of emotional intelligence-and forms the basis for making healing connections with those in our care.
Until next time-
Linda Laskowski-Jones, MS, RN, ACNS-BC, CEN, FAWM
Editor-in-Chief, Nursing2011 Vice President: Emergency and Trauma Services, Christiana Care Health System, Wilmington, Del.
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