Eyes on the Prize

As a founder of a startup, I don't have a lot of time to slow down and relax and most days feel like high stakes gambits. So, whenever I have the opportunity, I push myself to go to the gym to disconnect while my batteries recharge. Exercise is both a stress reliever and a way for me to fuel myself to endure the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial roller coaster ride.

One of my favorite classes at the gym is Burn, a mix of cardio and strength training, performed in circuits. The intensity level is very high, the pace is fast and there is simply no room to think about anything but getting through the class alive. One of my favorite instructors is Jonathan who teaches an early Saturday morning class. Jonathan comes in the exact package you would expect of a high-intensity fitness instructor - muscular and toned with a lot of energy. However, Jonathan is missing a key skill that I look for in an instructor - he never looks anyone in the eye. 

The studio at the gym holds about 40-50 people when at max capacity but, on most Saturdays, the class has an average attendance of about 20-25 people. It is a relatively intimate setting and Jonathan leads us from the front of the class, facing the group and expertly demonstrating the exercises we are to perform. While he is going through the routines, he tends to look out into space, always averting the eyes of his students which, for me, continually creates a level of disconnect. Because of the speed of the class and the demands of the participants, I find it off-putting to have the instructor, with whom I am trying desperately to connect to ensure that I am performing the exercises properly, to never connect with me. Without looking me in the eye, I feel like he never sees me and is completely disengaged. And, it is entirely possible that I am the only one in the class that feels that way but I tend to doubt it. 

Good eye contact is, undoubtedly, one of the most critical skills we employ to make a connection with another person. Looking someone in the eye demonstrates sincerity and authenticity. How many times have you heard or said "look me in the eye when you say that," as a way to provide evidence that you are telling the truth. We use eye contact as a way to ensure that the person with whom we are communicating is listening and engaged. "Look at me when I am talking to you," is a constant refrain when I am talking to my children. When we are presenting to a group of people, we can make each and every person in the room feel like we are attending to them by briefly but consistently making eye contact while sharing a thought or idea. And, we feel like our message is resonating when our audience looks back at us, rather than staring off into space or looking at their mobile device while we are speaking.

Admittedly, Jonathan's lack of eye contact is not making me perform any less vigorously in my class and I am still getting a great workout. However, I am less likely to ask him a question or request assistance because I feel like I am invisible to him and his inability to connect visually makes me feel like he is disinterested in my experience. I am sure that is likely not the case for him and, because of what I do for a living, each week I find myself a little bit more preoccupied with what barriers exist for him to look at us straight on. I'm sure he is just a little bit shy and probably much prefers his 1:1 personal training over leading a large group. Yet, for most of the others in the class, they may never give it much more thought and will come to their own conclusions. And those conclusions may keep them from returning to class the following week which is certainly not a good outcome.

For now, I am going to keep focused on working hard in my class and will try to encourage him to look at me by continually looking at him while he talks. Perhaps one day he will feel comfortable enough to match my behavior.

Tammy Palazzo

t3 interactive LLC, 515 Valley Street, Suite 2, Maplewood, NJ 07040