The Power of Eye Contact
A while back we were invited by The Swedish Transportation Agency (Trafikkontoret) to train 350 of their employees in the ability to collaborate. In the true spirit of Tankeapoteket, we decided to do something unconventional. Knowing that we spend more time in front of our screens than in front of each other these days, we wanted to remind people what it feels like to be truly seen, heard and understood.
Research has shown that this kind of social validation goes way beyond a pleasant feeling and leads to psychological safety, trust and creativity in groups. Armed with a clear mission and a limited time-span (45 min), we devised a process aimed at nudging people into an open mindset where they could see each other beyond facades and job titles in order to experience authentic connection. Our methodology can be be divided into five steps:
Visualize the collective basic assumptions
Bathe the group in complete silence
Invite participants to one minute of quiet eye contact
Engage people in meaningful dialogues
Offer space for personal reflection
This might seem pretty straight forward, but we knew from experience, how difficult, unusual and scary it can be to give someone your full attention. So, we turned to the experts and in particular to The Abramović Method. This simple, but not easy, method aims to get people present and aware enough to experience the beauty of art and it was invented by one of the world’s most fascinating artists, Marina Abramović. You probably heard of her widely acclaimed performance at MoMA in New York where she sat immobile for 736 hours offering people her full attention. More recently she held a performance together with pianist Igor Levitt, aimed at presenting “Distraction-free Bach” by priming people to quiet the mind in order to experience beauty.
So, inspired by the great Abramović, we set the stage for the 350 people entering the spacious room at Munchenbryggeriet in Stockholm on a chilly October morning.
Step 1: Basic assumptions
First, we led them through a process in which they got to use their bodies to enact their core beliefs (Do I value safety over freedom? Do I believe others have good intentions? Can I handle being wrong?).
Step 2: Complete silence
Then, we gave them a couple of minutes to close their eyes in complete silence in order to invoke a sense of presence.
Step 3: One minute of eye contact
Then, in a space of quiet reflection, we told them to open their eyes and turn to the person sitting next to them and just look that person in the eye for one minute.
Step 4: Meaningful dialogue
After what felt like an eternity, we told them to start a conversation with that same person, based on a menu of conversation that we had placed in front of them. This menu included questions such as “what do you most appreciate in others?, “what makes you feel alive?” and “if you got to re-educate yourself today, what profession would you pursue?”.
Step 5: Personal reflection
After having completed two sets of dialogues, we ended with a couple of minutes in silence where each participant got to reflect and write down their biggest insights from the experience.
The collected notes gave us intriguing insights into what the experience had meant for the participants. Many reflected on how difficult and unusual it was to look someone in the eye but how easy it was to side-step smalltalk and spark up a meaningful conversation with a stranger and how interesting and multifaceted the co-workers turned out to be.
There was one note in particular that has really stayed with us. One that proved that our efforts had been worthwhile and that we perhaps even generated some reflective ripple effects.
“I have never in my life looked someone in the eye for that long without saying anything, not even my wonderful wife with whom I’ve been married over 20 years! It was a little strange.. and scary.. and exciting”.
Until next time,