Updated: Jul 14
By Oran Aviv (Yippee - our 80th blog post!)
Have you ever experienced a conversation where the person you're talking to seems more focused on their phone screen than on you? It's a common occurrence that can leave us feeling unimportant or unheard. That's because without direct eye contact, we often feel a lack of genuine connection.
Eye contact plays an important role in establishing deep connections between individuals. It's a simple yet powerful technique that is important not only for connecting with individuals living with dementia but also for building meaningful relationships with everyone around us.
Communicate with Your Eyes
In Naomi Feil’s Validation Technique, we use what she calls |genuine, direct eye contact” in our work with people who are living with dementia.
Eye contact serves several important functions:
Direct eye contact helps the person you are conversing with maintain better focus on you and the conversation at hand. Often, individuals can easily get distracted by various sights within their visual field. A branch swaying on a tree or decorations hanging in the room may captivate their attention, causing them to momentarily forget your presence and making communication more challenging. This highlights the importance of holding eye contact to ensure a continued connection.
Individuals who may struggle to differentiate between the present and the past often begin to initiate conversation with genuine eye contact. Direct eye contact can stimulate communication.
When someone looks at us with genuine eye contact, it conveys a wealth of information. It shows that they genuinely care about us, that they are interested in what we have to say, and it allows them to peer into our eyes to assess our honesty.
During the pandemic, when masks covered our facial expressions, many of us had to learn to read emotions through the eyes. People with cognitive impairment often rely more on their emotions and intuition and can sense whether someone can be trusted by looking into their eyes.
By establishing eye contact, we enable them to make that assessment about us – are we someone they can trust.
Approach from the Front
As we age or live with dementia, changes to our sight can occur. One notable change is a decrease in the visual field size, resulting in a loss of peripheral vision—the ability to see what is on our sides while looking forward.
In Naomi Feil’s Validation Method, when working with older clients who have more advanced dementia, it is crucial to approach them slowly from the front. Approaching from the side may startle a person because they cannot see us coming due to their limited peripheral vision.
When engaging with individuals facing these visual challenges, it is recommended to establish eye contact as you approach. This gentle gesture not only ensures a gradual and non-startling interaction but also allows them to read your facial expressions to understand your presence and intentions.
Eye Contact for Better Understanding
For someone living with dementia, understanding and making sense of their surroundings and conversations are paramount for being able remain independent. Every piece of additional information that can aid in this endeavor becomes essential.
Wendy Mitchel, a remarkable individual diagnosed with Young-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 58, has shared her journey through two insightful books, shedding light on what it truly means to live with dementia.
In her first book, "Somebody I Used to Know," Wendy shares the challenges she faces when engaging with others, particularly over the phone where visual cues are absent. She vividly describes the experience of conversing with "faceless voices," highlighting the struggle to connect and comprehend:
"The phone with faceless voices has become the enemy. When you speak to someone who has dementia on the phone, you are not able to see their facial cues, so you do not know if the person has processed what you have said."
This poignant observation underscores the crucial role of eye contact in communication, especially when interacting with older individuals who experience difficulty understanding. Eye contact allows them to interpret your facial expressions and glean additional cues, enabling a deeper understanding of your message.
Another advantage of direct eye contact is its ability to help us determine a person's preferred sense—whether it be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.
The Validation Technique of Preferred Sense is rooted in the principles from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) to recognize an individual's preferred sense by observing the direction of their eyes during speech or contemplation.
Understanding a person's preferred sense can allow us to connect deeper by using sense-related language. For instance, if a person's preferred sense is sight, we can incorporate visual terms into our communication. We might say, "I saw that it was a golden sunset at the beach," creating a vivid mental image. By tailoring our language accordingly, we can strengthen our connection.
Babies and Eye Contact
I have a new grandson and when we make direct contact, he becomes much more verbal, but the minute we lose eye contact, it’s as if I no longer exist for him. As soon as he makes eye contact with another face he reacts and smiles. It is though eye contact that we connect.
I didn’t know they filmed me last night while I “conversed” with my 3 -month old grandson, so this clip was a nice surprise. I feel it's a perfect way to show how direct eye contact allowed him to chatter with me.
It turns out that when we make eye contact a baby’s brainwaves synchronize to those of the adult:
At the University of Cambridge’s Baby-LINC Lab, they studied whether eye contact might influence infant synchronization of their brainwaves to those of the adults. This may help with communication and learning. this is from their study:
“Infants vocalized more frequently during live direct gaze, and individual infants who vocalized longer also elicited stronger synchronization from the adult.”
So if we are trying to connect at a non-verbal level with an older adult who has cognitive impairment, by using direct eye contact, we may also be able to synchronize our brainwaves and, in this way, connect at a deeper level. Naomi Feil was so ahead of her time understanding that genuine direct eye contact helps us connect deeper!
The Window to the Soul
When I began gathering material to write this blog post about the importance of eye contact, I found this eulogy that I wrote several years ago for a client who had advanced MS. I read it at her funeral.
With her husband’s permission, I am sharing this to help you realize that by connecting though a person’s eyes with direct eye contact, you can really reach a person’s soul.
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul…
And through your eyes, I saw what a beautiful soul you are.
When the rest of your body no longer functioned,
It was through your beautiful eyes that you shared your feelings.
Your eyes would tell it all - whether you were tired, sad, or happy.
Your eyes would shine and smile and even laugh.
Your eyes would show love when your husband,
your own personal angel,
returned home and gave you a kiss.
Or they would show joy when someone mentioned your grandchildren.
Your eyes also showed pain when you were not feeling well, and your eyes also knew how to shut off the world when something or someone bothered you.
there was also a secretive, sly look in those eyes,
as if you knew the deeper meaning of life,
and the meaning of your own situation - a type of enlightenment.
That soul that I saw in those eyes, was one extraordinary person.
A person who never gave up despite the difficult cards she was dealt in life.
A person who found a reason to go on and live.
A person who found enjoyment in a story read by the caregiver
or by listening to a British radio program.
A person who would laugh at a joke or at a silly story.
A person who was happy when friends and family came to visit.
I learned so much from you, and it is something that will continue to guide me. I learned that we need to look much deeper into a human being to really know who they are.
We need to look into their eyes and see their soul.
I will truly miss you.
Learn to look into another person’s eyes so you can see into their world.
Direct eye contact forms the base for genuine connection. Be conscious of always making eye contact when speaking to an individual, especially someone who may have difficulty focusing due to cognitive change. We even made a conscious decision when selecting the photo for our website's home page to feature a clear image of direct eye contact. Without this image, it would not show someone truly connecting with an older adult.
If eye contact is not possible, due to loss of sight or withdrawal, it is possible to connect with touch and by speaking or singing, but, when possible, always make sure you have genuine direct eye contact so you can connect deeper. Once understood, this technique is remarkably simple yet holds the power to profoundly impact how you connect with others.
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