A Revolution Built on Eye Contact

We had arranged to meet at a local coffee shop following a flirty back and forth on OkCupid. We decided to relocate to another cafe since the shop was closed, but before we began our walk she halted me in my tracks and turned to face me. “Let’s connect for a moment,” she said, pulling me into her intense eye contact. We held each other’s gaze, unflinchingly, for a few minutes, neither saying a word. I had never encountered such a maneuver. Was it a romantic gesture? Was she bewitching me? Or, was she attempting to compensate for the detached nature of online dating?

Throughout our 3-hour date, I felt compelled to match her preferred communication style. We faced each other whenever we spoke. We maintained eye contact longer than, I imagined, most would consider comfortable. At one point we found ourselves perching on a park bench, side by side. Since it hindered our ability to meet eyes, she asked if I would be comfortable sitting at an adjacent picnic table, allowing us to face one another. I was happy to acquiesce. Her directness, albeit mildly uncomfortable, was refreshing and engaging. I could feel her breaking me down with the strength of her pupils. Did she express this same level of attentiveness toward everybody or was she showing sincerity, not wanting to leave her intentions ambiguous? Was our bond already that strong?

When I remarked on the intentionality of her body language, she disclosed the source of her warm, disquieting posture. She was employing social practices, or rather, a particular way of orienting in the world: Authentic Relating.

Cutting the Small Talk, Getting Real

Authentic Relating—also understood as a social movement—began in San Francisco in the 1990s, now with hubs in Seattle, Austin, Boulder, and internationally, in Stockholm, Berlin, Antwerp, and Toronto, with the goal of fostering deeper intimacy with others. They hope to overcome conflicts and loneliness, locally and globally, which arise from the alienation we encounter in our contemporary lives. One advocate describes it as a way of “cutting the small talk, getting real, and really showing up as you are…It’s about letting others show up and be themselves, with no judgment, and holding space for them to also have this experience.” Randy DesRocher, a longtime activist and mentor in the movement says, “It’s a way of being that is all about connecting at higher levels of consciousness.” Authentic Relating centers on the paradox between the “universality of the human condition while celebrating the expression of our uniqueness.”

Authentic Relating A Revolution Built On Eye Contact Erraticus Image by Cristina Gottardi
Authentic Relating is about showing up as you are (image source: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash).

A company which offers training around the world, Authentic Relating Training International (ART), uses a conjointive metaphor—language common to the AR movement—to capture their lofty aspirations: “Bridges connect separated territories of isolated experiences into a common whole, and activate currents of love, intimacy, connection, and integration through all parts.” The organization wants to supercharge the ways we relate to one another, transcending superficial social cadences. They believe that rote rituals of communication keep us isolated, from ourselves and one another.

They hope to overcome conflicts and loneliness, locally and globally, which arise from the alienation we encounter in our contemporary lives.

Those familiar with the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s might expect the overlap in activities common to authentic relaters and other inheritors of the Esalen Institute legacy: yoga, mindfulness, deep ecology, transpersonal psychology, gestalt theory, and somatics, among other New Age spiritualists practices. Books common to AR practitioner bookcases shouldn’t shock observers: Eckert Tolle’s The Power of Now (1997), Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (1999), Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul (2007), Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988), Dan MillmansThe Way of the Peaceful Warrior (1980), and Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft (2003).  

Lest one believe Authentic Relating is a complete reincarnation of the counterculture—alternative, earthy and granola—its techniques are going mainstream, being adopted by startups, schools, and business executives. Their trainings consist of group workshops, circling, and retreats.

Momentary Companions

Of the many Authentic Relating social events designed to gather and engage the community, the most popular are AR game nights, one to which my evangelizing date invited me—“the club where you bare your soul to strangers” (as another participant referred to it). Still uncertain whether I had any interest in pursuing something romantic with her, the startling purposefulness of our interaction and my own desire for deeper human contact piqued my curiosity.

The gathering took place in a small, rented-out studio behind someone’s home, just north of Seattle. Some attendees greeted one another in warm extended hugs, indicating, to my neophyte eyes, a certain degree of intimacy. I expected uncommonly open expressions of physical affection, the kind I’d encountered among burners and people from the polyamorous community. It made discerning the actual depth of friendship between my soon-to-be AR comrades difficult. We were instructed to remove our shoes and to form a circle on the ground: no furniture present to create physical boundaries or relational hierarchies. A few respectful ground rules were agreed upon by all to ensure we inhabited an emotionally “safe space.” Preferred pronouns were stated, brief personal introductions also given.

Two facilitators led us, a dozen twenty- and thirty-somethings, through AR activities, pulling from a manual of over 150 different games. We “greeted” each other relying purely on eye contact. During one activity, we paired off and took turns talking about recent experiences that weighed on our minds, the other person using emotionally-based but value-neutral language to comment on their perceptions of our actions and reactions (mirroring what Irvin Yalom describes as the “here-and-now”). My momentary companion and I—him a slim and attractive man with playful, long hair—had no previous history, but I found it resonant divulging to him the loss I felt over some damaged or hindered friendships. He compassionately echoed back his observations, noting how affected I appeared by the situation—conveyed by the tone of my voice and tension in my facial expressions. I won’t forget the encouraging smile and light in his eyes—genuine as far as I could read—him actively listening, helping me see how I was being in the world. He expressed his appreciation for my “share.”

The timer went off and we changed partners: standard for every activity.

During another round, we sat cross-legged facing new partners, neither of us talking, only allowed to communicate non-verbally for a few minutes (typifying my earlier date); I found it truly foreign to look that deeply into another person’s eyes (something I had previously reserved only for romantic interests). After shaking the initial awkwardness, the transparency began to feel reassuring, human. Something seemed to be entering through my eyes, reaching a vulnerable place inside of me.

We were instructed to remove our shoes and to form a circle on the ground: no furniture present to create physical boundaries or relational hierarchies.

In another activity, we alternated time in the “hot seat” wherein a person would sit in front of the group letting participants ask them anything. The only constraint was a vague “spiciness” scale, 1-5, used by the seated person to inform us how “intimate” of questions they were willing to field. A “1” drew questions like, “What type of food do you like?” or “How long have you lived here?” and a “5” included, “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” or “What is something you’re afraid to tell your parents?” One woman broke into cathartic tears, revealing that her father still had no idea she was gay and had been living with her girlfriend for years. Another participant rollicked in the hot seat, exchanging questions with playful quips and jokes, like a performing comedian. The laughter and tears interspersed organically (eh, authentically), the group shifting their emotional states naturally to fit the appropriate drift of the speakers.

When asked about Authentic Relating by friends, Allison Gee tells them they’re “communication and social skills games nights.” Having participated in game nights for 4 years, she says, “AR is so much more than that. So much of society and culture trains us on how to not be our authentic selves, and AR helps us remember who we really are and how we truly desire to experience the world.”

‘Push Your Edge’

Authentic Relating is challenging and uncomfortable for new attendees. While one can decide how or which activities they want to participate in, the goal is to “push your edge,” Gee says. “When everything is optional, people have to make decisions on their own about how far to push themselves, if they feel socially uncomfortable, and sometimes people are not accustomed to thinking for themselves more than they realize.”

AR games nights bear a resemblance to group therapy, which raises some concerns, a kinship even more apparent with circling. Circling is a more intensive way of learning how one is perceived by others, unpacking the social dynamics at play and the ways in which our sense of self differs from how others view us. It helps us uncover blind spots. Authentic relaters are quick to pount out that therapy is for licensed therapists, whereas what they do fits more closely within a coaching framework. They understand therapy as a way of improving psychological health or preventing destructive patterns by fixing the past. Circling, according to the Circling Institute, is a “transformation of your way of being through authentic relating. It is focused on how much access to aliveness and connection you have in the present moment.” It’s about exploring one’s thoughts and emotions of the past or future, but only in as much as they “are alive in the moment.” This reveals itself in unique ways depending on who is present in an interaction.

Circling is a more intensive way of learning how one is perceived by others, unpacking the social dynamics at play and the ways in which our sense of self differs from how others view us.

The practice aims to remove any stories, societal expectations, or ideas we have about ourselves, so that we may find a less-sullied self (think Rousseau’s “back to nature” philosophy). It’s incident with the profound moments we might have with a stranger at a bus stop who cracks us open with just the right question. It creates a spontaneous moment of community. In part, knowing we’ll likely never see them again, we can show segments of ourselves we keep hidden—or didn’t know were concealed—from family, friends, and ourselves. Circling, specifically, but Authentic Relating, generally, strives for relationships to remain in that space all the time. In becoming more comfortable with confronting the submarine ways in which we impact one another’s emotional lives, beyond social etiquette and community procedures that have conditioned us, they believe we can enrich our relationships. AR hopes to subvert and change those cultural expectations.

It’s relatively easy to authentically-relate when one is surrounded by experienced authentic relaters who can help coach you, but it’s a bit bewildering once one returns to more emotionally guarded climes. “One of the ideas from AR games,” says Gee, “is that we will not just conduct ourselves in a special way at game night but that we will take these skills outside and use them in the world.”

Falling In Love Instantly

The authentic relaters I spoke to attested to the many benefits they’ve reaped from the skills they’ve developed: healthier, rooted, more effective relationships. But, are these social skills actually nurturing more authentic relationships? Are these techniques, such as sustained eye contact—often indicative of an already intimate relationship—putting the cart before the horse? Are they social fabrications giving the illusion of emotional connection?

Just as sexual intimacy can be confused as or made into a substitute for emotional intimacy, critics of Authentic Relating may conclude it’s all just an act, a performance. In the way performers portraying Tony and Maria in West Side Story may taste a certain degree of passion the doomed lovers are supposed be experiencing, each of us still knows it’s a mask. It’s all just play. We’d be foolish to call this “authentic love.” Right?

Eye contact primes the social brain to empathize (Alex Holyoake/Unsplash).

In the 1990s, psychologist Arthur Aron conducted a study wherein he succeeded in getting a couple of strangers to fall in love using sustained eye contact. Mandy Len Catron, who would later experiment with the exercise herself, recounts Aron’s enterprise:

A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.

While sensationalized as a magic method for match-making, the 36 question activity is more practically recommended as a means of improving interpersonal closeness and not as a fool-proof mode of manufacturing love. This combinations of eyes and “I” statements gives credence to the Authentic Relating movement’s focus on “the windows to the soul.” Offering an explanation, Aron puts it simply: “Eye contact is a way of feeling connected, and feeling that [another person] is interested in you has a huge effect of feeling love for a person.” Further, a recent neuroscientific study suggests that eye contact primes the social brain to empathize; and empathy is the heart of attachment.

Authentic Relating, One Relationship At A Time

The eyes are one of the largest pores we have for realizing our intersubjectivity, acknowledging that the boundaries between “me” and “you” are fuzzier than we tend to think. Our existence and identity are founded in the other. As Siri Hustvedt writes in What I loved (2003), “I am because you are.”

In “The Philosopher and His Shadow,” phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty states, “Each of us is pregnant with the others and confirmed by them in his body.” Our ability to think, feel, imagine, and be, is mutually reciprocating with each other, necessary and dependent upon our lived, bodily experiences. This intercorporeality, as Merleau-Ponty refers to it, is a connection between each of us that does not require one to be fully conscious of the bonding. We do not have to verbalize or cerebralize intimacy for it to exist, but, to AR’s credit, by focusing a bit more on body language and diligent eye contact, we can reinforce the sought-after emotional bonds which already exist.

The eyes are one of the largest pores we have for realizing our intersubjectivity, acknowledging that the boundaries between “me” and “you” are fuzzier than we tend to think.

Yet, research specific to Authentic Relating and its benefits remains limited, the growing numbers of communities and contributing members its largest body of evidence. Gee would like to see it at least “included in professional training and school educational programs,” perhaps paralleling other character-building curricula, therapeutic after-school programs, or emotional-intelligence-centered schooling models. Until then, Authentic Relating must rely on participant testimonials and passionate novitiates to enlarge their cultural impact—one relationship at a time.

Regarding me, AR’s impact has been imprecise. My ocular-focused friend and I did not have a follow-up date and I have yet to become meaningfully involved with the Authentic Relating community. However, I do attend more to body language—my own and others—embracing a more open and, hopefully, inviting way of physically being in the world. My protracted eye contact with others has increased and so has the frequency, I believe, with which I am able to “see others as they are” and “be seen.” Am I authentically-relating or not? Who’s to say?

(Featured image: Unsplash)

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is Founder and Editor in Chief of Erraticus. He also serves as Director of Operations and Social Media at Effectiveness Institute, a training firm dedicated to helping organizations foster productive teams by developing people skills and emotional intelligence. He is a former mental health professional and educator. He covers education, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He resides in Cascadia.

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