The first question I always get asked on courses regarding eye contact is how much is appropriate?
A degree of eye contact, just as in a friendly demeanour and use of the patient’s name is a key part of initiating a person-to-person connection with the patient, and continuation is integral to maintaining rapport and trust throughout the interaction.
There are no one size fits all rules regarding how much eye contact to make – somewhere between a dismissive talk-to-the-hand and a boxing weigh-in staredown – however there are some factors to consider that may influence the degree of eye contact used:
- Cultural factors – for example some Indigenous people may be hesitant to make eye contact with non-Indigenous people,
- Religious reasons – some religions may discourage eye contact with people outside (or even sub-groups within) that religion,
- Gender – there may be gender based factors which may also be linked to culture and religion,
- Personality – some people are more reserved than others,
- The surgery environment – physical positioning of the supine patient with (often dark) protective glasses and the dentist sitting behind.
The bottom line is to read from the patient’s body language how comfortable you both are with eye contact.
It may be a matter of perceiving that the patient keeps looking away when you look at them – don’t keep pushing through if the patient is visibly uncomfortable with eye contact. Give them space and with building of rapport and trust it may increase over time.
Sometimes a patient may use a persistent eye contact to indicate anxiety (help!) or even to try to create dominance over you.
PS – most of these principles apply to handshakes/ physical contact too.