by Daniel Kingsley, MA(Cantab), Presence Training
Speaking Circles® are famous for curing stage fright, as well as developing speakers who can share their message powerfully and without a script. Founder Lee Glickstein developed the method intuitively back in the 1980s as he worked to overcome the performance anxiety he experienced as a standup comedian. It has expanded to have very much wider applications.
The Speaking Circles approach to public speaking spread by word-of-mouth around the globe through many personal stories of radical breakthrough. The purpose of this article is to move beyond anecdotal evidence to identify certain scientific studies that tell us why this work is so powerful and effective.
The studies referenced in this article were undertaken by Dr. Stephen Porges, whose Polyvagal Theory examines what makes human beings feel safe and relational, and Dr. Jozien Bensing, who has researched the effect of a physician’s empathy upon their patients’ levels of calmness, anxiety and trust.
The effect of eye contact on speaker confidence
Dr. Stephen Porges has done extensive research1 into what it takes for human beings to feel safe and relaxed, which is significantly relevant to those engaged in public speaking.
Public speaking is a situation where the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system is readily engaged. People are faced with a sea of faces, which may or may not be friendly, and it is easy as a speaker to imagine the possibility of harsh judgment from an audience. Under ordinary circumstances this is likely to lead to large amounts of additional adrenaline and a substantial increase in the speaker’s heart rate, as the body readies itself for a potentially “dangerous” situation. It is easy to see that too much additional adrenaline and the related increase in heart rate are not conducive to effective public speaking. Most speakers would like to be able to remain relatively calm in a public speaking situation in order to feel relaxed, relax their audience, think clearly and be easily able to access their material.
Dr. Porges’ research suggests that there is a system in the body, which he calls the Social Engagement system (SES), which is mediated by a branch of the 10th Cranial nerve, called the Vagus nerve. His research suggests that when this system is activated, the vagus nerve acts as a “brake” on the sympathetic nervous system, calming down the adrenal glands, to attenuate adrenaline release and maintain heart rate. In other words, when the SES is activated, things that would usually cause us to feel very nervous no longer do so.
There are a number of ways of activating the SES, but Dr. Porges notes that one of the easiest ways to activate this system is for a person to be engaged in non-threatening eye contact.
Dr. Porges’ research therefore suggests that when we are in a situation that includes non-threatening eye contact with another human being, the SES is brought into play. Things that would usually cause us to feel scared, nervous or unsafe no longer do so, or do so to a much lesser extent.
This research supports a major tenet of Speaking Circles practice, which encourages speakers to make soft-focused eye contact with individual members of an audience for long enough for their brain to register that the other person is not a threat (typically in the region of 3 to 4 seconds). The experience of Speaking Circles Facilitators is that this method usually results in speakers feeling considerably calmer, better able to access their material and think creatively.
The effect of eye contact on audience rapport
Dr. Porges’ research into the SES also points to some relevant information on the question of rapport between speakers and audiences.
In order for a speaker to build rapport with an audience, they need to be able to relate with them, to read the non-verbal signals coming from the audience and to get themselves “into sync” with that audience. In order to do, this the speaker needs to be able to access their ability to relate and be relational.
Dr. Porges’ research suggests that when the SES is activated and the heart rate is dampened down, the body switches from activating the Sympathetic (“fight or fight”) Nervous System to harnessing the Parasympathetic (“Rest and Digest”) Nervous System to restore body homeostasis. When this happens, human beings become more willing to be relational and take in new information. His research points to the proposition that people need to perceive they are safe before social engagement can occur.
What this implies is that when a speaker makes soft eye contact with an audience (thereby activating the SES), not only does it calm down the speaker and the audience, it also makes both more relational. The speaker is better able to take on board cues from the audience, and the audience is more willing and able to relate with the speaker.
Dr. Porges’ research is, in this regard, further supported by the research of Dr. Jozien Bensing on the effect of empathy (including empathic eye contact) between GPs4 and patients.5 Dr. Bensing’s research found that use of eye contact (and other forms of empathic listening) by physicians, decreased patients' anxiety, increased patient satisfaction and increased patients' willingness to disclose cues and concerns to their physicians.
In other words, the research showed that use of empathic eye contact made the listeners more trusting of the speaker (in this case the doctor) and made them feel calmer.
The research of Dr. Porges and Dr. Bensing reinforces another major tenet of Speaking Circles practice, which is that extended soft-focused eye contact is one of the quickest and most powerful ways for a speaker to build rapport and trust with an audience.
A virtuous circle
Dr. Porges’ research also points to another key effect of eye contact. His model (as validated by his research) postulates that the relationship between heart rate and the SES is bi-directional. In other words – when people are being relational they feel calmer, and also when people are calmer they are more relational.
With regard to speakers making eye contact with audience members, this bi-directionality also allows for the creation of a virtuous (positive) circle: The speaker makes soft-focused eye contact with members of the audience, which is interpreted by his or her brain as being relationally engaged with another human being, which in turn makes the speaker feel calmer, which makes the speaker feel more able to be relational…
What this means is that instead of the sight of an audience causing a speaker to feel more uncomfortable, extended non-threatening eye contact would be expected to have the opposite effect, namely of progressively calming a speaker down and making them better able to relate.
And this indeed exactly mirrors the experience on the ground of Facilitators when coaching participants in the Speaking Circles method. Facilitators find that the more that speakers are able to stay with soft, extended eye contact with audience members, the calmer and more attuned both they and the audience become.
The experience of Speaking Circles Facilitators is that extended soft-focused eye contact makes speakers feel more confident and helps them to quickly build rapport with audiences.
The research of Dr. Stephen Porges and Dr. Jozien Bensing provides empirical evidence that soft, non-threatening eye contact does have these effects, and starts to offer some explanations as to why this should be so.
1 See www.stephenporges.com for a full list of research papers published.
2 The limbic system carries out a variety of functions including regulating the emotions and the flow of adrenaline in the body.
3 The Polyvagal Theory – Chapter 1
4 Doctors (physicians) in General Practice.
5 Dr Bensing has published a large number of research papers on this subject. See the three papers cited at the end of this paper for a representative sample.
- Dr. Stephen Porges – The Polyvagal Theory – Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation – Norton – 2011 – ISBN13 - 978-0393707007
- The Effectiveness of Empathy in General Practice - F Derkson, J Bensing – British Journal of General Practice – January 2013 – Vol 63 Number 606 p.32
- Patient Anxiety in the medical encounters – A study of verbal and non-verbal communication in medical practice – Bensing et al – Health Education – vol 108 Number 5 (2008) p. 373-383.
- Looking for Trouble – The Added value of Sequence Analysis in Finding Evidence for the Role of Physicians in Patients Disclosure of cues and concerns – Bensing et al - Medical Care 2010 – vol 48(7) p. 583-588