Redefining attention: Why Eye Contact Isn’t the Sole Indicator of Active Listening

I recently read a story about a student’s school report after joining a new class, their teacher referred to them as ‘disengaged and inattentive’ because they often doodled when the teacher was talking. In almost every exchange the teacher remained adamant that they must look at them when they were talking, so that they could be sure the student was listening. I felt a familiar sting thinking back to reports of my own.

‘Often distracted’

‘Lacks focus’

‘Needs to work on paying attention’

But do you know what was interesting? Those comments were paired with ones like:

‘Produces great work’

‘Homework is always completed’

‘Grades are exceeding expectation’

Now, this isn’t me trying to toot my own horn but it does make me wonder how many others may have been made to feel that they were a bad student if they weren’t looking at their teacher when they spoke, despite what their outputs were. I wasn’t a ‘naughty’ kid by any means, I didn’t disrupt class or disrespect my teachers, but I did struggle to keep focus on them especially when constantly being told “eyes up, Katy. Pay attention”. 

Anyway, back to the initial story, when confronted by their teacher about their ‘lack of focus’ the student responded with but I don’t listen with my eyes. I paused for a minute when reading that.

I don’t listen with my eyes.

Honestly, I’d never really thought about it like that before. Because we don’t listen with our eyes, so why is there so much emphasis on eye contact = attention. When we really think about it, many struggle with this exact thing, especially those within the neurodiverse community. 

A technique often adopted is the use of physical stimuli to help maintain focus and retain information, this could be simply doodling, or using fidget toys. Whilst some see these as distractions, many use them as something to focus on so that they don’t become distracted. 

I began thinking about the ways that this translates into our adult life and how I wish it hadn’t taken me to my 30’s to become self-aware about the way in which I absorb information. 

I have often sat in meetings both in person and online and spent a lot of time thinking to myself ‘make eye contact’, ‘make sure it looks like you’re paying attention’ then realising that by trying to make myself look focused, I actually wasn’t focused at all. So, when I join a call and the first message is ‘cameras on please’ I can’t help but shudder and feel like I’m being watched. 

Now, my rational brain knows that this isn’t really the case, but that doesn’t stop me overthinking it and I’m certain I’m not the only one. 

This also doesn’t mean that if my camera is on I’m not paying attention, I’ve found my own ways to keep focus as much as possible. But we do need to think about how we might be impacting those who have similar struggles. Society can be very quick to judge those who don’t seem engaged or remain quiet during meetings, unaware that they are just absorbing information in their own way. It’s important to remember that just because someone isn’t vocal or staring into your eyes doesn’t mean they aren’t taking in information. 

My point here is that everyone learns in different ways and in the modern workplace, it’s essential to recognise that not everyone processes information in the same way. While we often associate attentiveness with eye contact, it’s crucial to understand that people absorb and focus on information differently. True inclusivity means acknowledging that one’s attention isn’t always directly tied to their visual engagement. Some may listen more effectively with their ears, absorbing information through active listening, while others might prefer written communication or other sensory cues. To foster a truly inclusive workplace, we need to respect diverse processing styles, ensuring that everyone’s unique way of paying attention is valued and accommodated.