Human beings make inferences to explain behavior. As it happens, there is a universal concept about that called the “attribution theory.” Attributing reasons for behavior is natural. But the attributes assigned are not always accurate.
In an actual NLP workshop scenario, participants worked in threes to demonstrate this. One of the participants made up an unflattering story about a second participant and told this to the third person. Then he introduced the third person to the second one. They chatted for a few moments, and then went on to the next part of the scenario.
In this next one, the first person created a flattering story about the second person, and tells it to the third person. Then he introduced the third person to the second, and they chatted for a few minutes.
This same scenario is repeated until all three have played all the roles. Talking about it later, they compare their reactions and the outward indications of those reactions noted by the other two participants. Not surprisingly, expectations tend to be fulfilled, and the labels make a difference.
Attributing reasons for behavior runs into problems at that point if not before. For instance, online sources note that behavior that might be labeled as staring depends on attributions made by the observer.
So participants should be aware that one purpose of these exercises is to discover how to make others feel uncomfortable. Rupert Sheldrake offers experiments about staring that are not hard to duplicate in ordinary settings. They are covered in his book, Seven Experiments That Could Change the World.
That feeling of someone staring when your back is turned originally was probably a survival tactic. Too much eye contact may be experienced as intimidating, for the same reason. But it is also cultural, more common, online sources say, among some South Americans and Germans and someone waiting for a “Hi” from the other person.
Why? Because making eye contact is the norm when getting ready to greet someone or when expecting a greeting. Take, for instance, a situation where, as in an NLP study group, a group entering a room has been instructed not to greet the persons already seated there. The people already in the room don’t know this, but are expecting that people will be entering the room and are ready to greet them. So they make eye contact, but there is no greeting or reciprocal greeting. What can be attributed erroneously because there is unreciprocated eye contact? For one thing, staring.
Remedies: Those who find themselves unexpectedly in this situation can ask themselves whether this is a role-playing exercise and then dismiss it. They can also take another tack and offer a smile and a casual greeting before averting their eyes and talking to someone else. In other words, make the greeting instead of waiting to be greeted. That way, the shoe is on the other foot.
Some unexpected seconds of eye contact may be a glitch, but when experiments like this are ongoing, what might be labeled “staring” should be attributed to the experiment and not to the person.
Linda Chalmer Zemel received the Exceptional Performance Award from the National Guild of Hypnotists as a member of their faculty. She teaches media writing at SUNY Buffalo State College. Contact Linda at email@example.com