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Look me in the eye

The summer after I graduated from college, I completed the first seven weeks of the 13-week Officer Training School at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. I eventually chose not to take a commission because my husband and I couldn’t get a joint assignment, but despite not getting a career out of the deal, the OTS experience had a lasting impact.

One small but profound change had to do with—believe it or not—eye contact.

I am by nature an introvert, kind of timid, and the antithesis of pushy. At least I used to be. 😉 As such, prolonged eye contact was uncomfortable. I’d look you in the eye, then look over your shoulder while telling my story, periodically reconnecting, then glancing at different spots around the room.

Enter the 1LT in charge of one of my groups. He asked us each in turn why we wanted to be in the Air Force. I proceeded to tell him about how much I admired my dad who was at the time a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, and the characteristics he had that I wanted to emulate.

When I finished, the Lieutenant ripped me to shreds because I spent my entire impromptu speech looking out the window. Pretty much.

My face grew hot—I’m sure I wanted to cry, though I didn’t—and in that one moment, I wanted to quit. Why the hell should I sit here and take this kind of abuse? Who the hell does this a**hole think he is? Conflict and I don’t get along, and I hated that man for a long time for calling me out in front of everyone for doing what I thought was polite.

Funny thing, though. It stuck with me. I’ve never wanted to be perceived as weak or prissy. Until I started writing, my jobs from age 16 on were almost exclusively in male-dominated environments. I liked it that way, but I wanted to make sure I was on equal footing.

So I made sure I had a firm handshake, was always professional, knew my stuff—and after my painful lesson at OTS—maintained eye contact. Not in a scary, unblinking, serial killer kind of way, but rather in a strong, absolutely-not-submissive, totally-interested-in-what-you-have-to-say kind of way.

The most interesting part was not the effect it had on others, but the effect it had on me. Motivational guru Tony Robbins is big on the effects of physiology on mood. For example, if you’re feeling down, but you hold your head up, take full breaths, and let yourself smile the way you would if you were happy, you start to feel better.

I think the full eye contact made me feel more powerful and more confident. And now, while I try to follow the cues of the person I'm talking to and ascertain their comfort level, making eye contact is part of who I am.

So, to 1LT Jerk, who’s probably a general by now: thanks!