“Every conversation that has felt meaningful started out by looking each other in the eye”
If you know me (or follow me on Instagram!), you’re probably aware of my close relationship with my phone — well, maybe it’s a bit too close. A few weeks ago, I decided to do a digital detox and let me tell you, it was not easy. But this experience reinforced how important it is to stop looking at the world through the tiny screen on a phone — and to really connect with the people around me. Film producer Brian Grazer, the co-founder of Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard, makes this point in his new book, Face to Face. I talked to him about why he’s such a big believer in eye contact — and about a certain chance encounter with a beautiful woman in a red dress (hint hint, his wife!). I’ll let him take it from here…
Katie Couric: Why is eye contact so important? What is its power, as you’ve come to understand it?
Brian Grazer: I meet with individuals coming from all walks of life — actors, musicians, writers, athletes, scientists, students, entrepreneurs, every day. Whether we are meeting for the first time, discussing a specific project or just catching up, I’ve found that establishing eye contact early on creates the best opportunity for creating openness, respect and empathy which are crucial to helping real connection. Looking each other in the eyes makes individuals feel seen and related to and is, in my opinion, the starting point for creating lasting bonds and understanding. I find it much more challenging to get to know someone and feel present if he or she is constantly checking a phone or scanning the room.
When we can establish and maintain eye contact, it changes everything! You can’t get a job without looking the interviewer in the eye, you can’t have a great date if you’re looking over your suitor’s shoulder, you can’t be an effective negotiator without looking up, and you can’t establish trust if you can’t make people feel safe and respected.
I think of this as the Wi-Fi of human connection. Just as Wi-Fi connects us to endless information across the internet, making eye contact opens us up to endless possibility. This one simple gesture tells someone: I see you. You matter. I’m interested in what you have to say. Don’t we all want to feel that?
How do you think our ability to connect to one another as human beings is weakening as technology really begins to encroach on our lives more and more?
We are getting further and further away from understanding a fundamental human thing: feelings. We can’t get empathy from our screens; we feel empathy by being with someone in person. But the more we tend to our devices rather than the people in front of us, the more comfortable we become looking down at our screens versus up at one another. And the loss is huge.
We are more “connected” than ever before yet we feel lonelier than we ever have. In fact, loneliness is an epidemic in our country. Nearly half of all Americans today say they are lonely and in the UK, the problem is severe enough that they appointed a Minister of Loneliness. A recent study just came out stating that 20% of Millennials say they don’t have any friends even though their social networks are massive. People are starving for genuine relationships, a sense of belonging, and the feeling of being understood.
Technology can be great for a lot of things (I do love posting food videos on Instagram!) and has advanced us in countless ways, but it can not replace genuine human connection. Nothing can replace being face to face with another human being, looking in each other’s eyes, feeling like they want to be with us and are for us.
The way back can start now. We can start by putting down our phones when we are with another person. Better yet, we can put our phones out of sight since the near presence of a phone can be distracting. It actually burns energy to pay attention to ignoring our phone! Notice how your interactions change when you’re fully present, face to face. For me, it has been the difference between success and failure, countless times. These are the stories I share in the book, both from my personal life and my Hollywood life. I would not be nearly as efficient and successful at my job if I didn’t spend uninterrupted, one-on-one face time getting to know people in a real way.
What’s an example from your own life when you really felt that eye contact made all the difference?
Sharing from my personal life — seven years ago, I was having dinner at Capo restaurant in Santa Monica with a close friend. Just as we were finishing dinner, I looked up and saw an attractive and intriguing woman in a short red dress walk in to the restaurant. Her hair was bouncing off her shoulders and she had a radiant life force. Before I knew it, she started walking towards our table. Turns out she knew my friend Barbara and came by to say hi. I popped up as Barbara introduced us, “Brian, please meet my friend Veronica who just moved here.” Veronica’s eyes seemed to twinkle as she smiled. I looked back at her and instantly felt an attraction. I asked her to join us, but she declined, not wanting to interrupt our dinner.
With my eyes locked on hers, I was able to convince her to sit down and join us for at least one glass of wine. The conversation was easy and fun, and when Veronica started laughing at a joke I made, I noticed her smile. And the shape of her lips. I was so drawn to her I felt like kissing her. We had only known each other for five minutes, but everything and everyone else in the room disappeared. I was living purely in the moment and magnetized. I had never felt this way with anyone. At the end of the evening, we walked out and stood facing each other at the valet. Her eyes were lit with an inner happiness that I’ve come to learn is exactly what she is all about. I immediately asked her for her number and called her the very next morning. We’ve been together ever since. I am absolutely sure that the moment we met and looked into each other’s eyes is what changed the entire course of our lives.
That’s a beautiful story. So, how do you think we can all start rekindling these connections with one another? What’s the way back?
I think we can start with one simple action: put your devices away the next time we are sitting across from a friend, an acquaintance, a business partner, and see how that changes the dynamic and connection. Be in the moment and be present. Instead of posting every moment of a Saturday night on social media, let’s be part of it, take it in. I believe the cool thing will be to disconnect more in order to reconnect more. I think we are already beginning to see this happen, but we can all be more intentional about it.
From there, I’d recommend taking a more active approach and reaching out to individuals who inspire you, who you believe you can learn from, and who you believe you can somehow contribute to in some way. This isn’t meant to be transactional. It’s meant to be an open dialogue based on your curiosity about another person’s story, how they got there, what drives them — with no asks. You never know who you are going to connect well with and what may come from a conversation but the first step is taking the risk of putting yourself out there and showing up with your authentic self. And most importantly, we have to make the time to do this face to face.
I’ve found the most meaning by carving out time for both spontaneous conversations as well as those that I seek out. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with people across all disciplines including Margaret Thatcher, Beyonce, Andy Warhol, Eminem, Bill Clinton, Princess Di, Bill Gates, and many Nobel laureates, athletes, scientists, and spies. But I’ve had equally enlightening, thoughtful experiences and conversations with people I happened to run into in the moment or started a conversation with. I love engaging and being in touch with the world around me. I love hearing people’s stories. We can all do this! Be open to people who cross your path in life; you never know where these conversations and connections can go.
I have found that every single person, famous or not, has had something to teach me when I could be focused and present for them: when I was able to make eye contact, ask questions and really listen to what they wanted to share. We’re both learning about ourselves, it’s not an interview or goal-oriented meeting. These conversations, that I still do to this day, are how I grow, learn, expand my worldview and deepen my empathy. It’s not only been the secret to my success, but it’s the secret to my joy. And every conversation that has felt meaningful started out by looking each other in the eye and establishing a real connection.
You’ve had an extraordinarily successful career and surely much of that success is due to your gift for human connection. Do you wonder how things might have gone differently if you had come of age in the present era when face to fact interaction is so much more rare?
If I was just starting out now, I would use the same principles that guided me at the beginning of my career. I’ve built my entire career on two things: curiosity and human connection. These tools are just as powerful and relevant, if not more so, than ever before. I depend on my face to face conversations, relationships and spontaneous interactions to challenge myself, to keep growing and learning, to broaden my perspective, and to disrupt my comfort zone. There is no doubt in my mind that this approach has been, and continues to be, a huge competitive advantage in my life when it comes to both meaningful success and happiness.
Ever since I could pick up a book as a young kid, I’ve had a hard time with reading. I now realize I had acute dyslexia, before it was even labeled as such, so teachers assumed I was just dumb. I would get Ds and Fs because I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. It was pretty debilitating, and I carried a lot of shame because of it. But what I was proud of was my curiosity. I wasn’t scared to go up to my teachers and talk to them about the lesson or ask about concepts I didn’t understand. I asked tons of questions. And my Grandma Sonia told me to never stop asking questions, saying, “You’re going all the way, Brian!” — despite not having any empirical evidence. She inspired me to work harder to learn. She was my champion at the time. Eventually, my grades went up, and I ended up getting a scholarship to USC. This was one of the earliest learning experiences for me to recognize the importance of cultivating relationships and more and more in my life, I would look to people in order to learn.
Jumping forward to when I was starting out in Hollywood, I realized had no leverage in one of the toughest industries to break into. I had no money to buy scripts or books to turn into movies. I had no connections. So I decided I needed to figure out how to demystify Hollywood so I could understand how to create value for myself. One day, in my job as a law clerk for Warner Brothers, I was delivering papers to be signed by Warren Beatty, one of the biggest stars in the world. This idea popped into my head that I could say the papers are only valid if I deliver them to Mr. Beatty himself. Assistants pushed back at first but eventually they let me through.
This approach afforded me the opportunity to meet the most interesting and powerful people in Hollywood, from actors to studio heads to agents. I never had an ask, and I always made sure I could be a good conversationalist by bringing some gift of information to them to get the conversation rolling. I turned that into a system that I still employ to this day. For the last 35 years, I’v meet people across all disciplines including Jonas Salk, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Di, Ronald Reagan, Cardi B, Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton, many Nobel laureates, scientists, spies, neighborhood skateboarders, assistant DA’s, Uber drivers and more coffee baristas than I can count. I found that every single person, famous or now, had something to teach me when I could be focused and present for them: when I make eye contact, ask questions and listen to what they want to share.
Today, eye contact and face to face connection are becoming so rare that if you ARE present and you DO look people in the eye, you can really stand out and get ahead. I share my stories with college students and young professionals all the time. When I meet with an assistant in my office or a junior producer or any one of my son’s friends, the ones that look up and make eye contact are the people I remember. It makes a huge difference — and we can all do it, right now, today.
This interview originally appeared on Medium.com
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