Three mistakes that lead to a lousy first impression

Studies show it takes the brain just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs to determine a person's emotional state

Carol Kinsey GomanIt was a job interview, an important client meeting or even a sales call. You were dressed for success, rehearsed and ready to wow them.

So what went wrong?

Chances are you got off to a bad start – and that less-than-positive impression began before you said a word.

Here are three small mistakes that might have had big negative consequences:

You checked for text messages

You may be familiar with research from Harvard and Columbia about the effects of expansive physical poses – feet wide apart, body erect, hands on hips. Holding a “power pose” for just two minutes raises testosterone levels (the hormone linked to power and self-confidence) and lowers the level of cortisol, a stress hormone.

But did you know that this effect is actually reversed when you tuck your chin in, round your shoulders and contract yourself physically? In that posture, you lower your testosterone level while increasing cortisol.

Instead of hunching over your phone, leave it in your purse or briefcase while you wait for a meeting. Read a newspaper sitting up straight, with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms spread wide to hold it open. By putting your body into this expansive posture, you’ll feel more confident and, when the meeting starts, you’ll be perceived that way.

You entered the meeting room and adjusted your attitude

In business interviews, first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as “likable” or “untrustworthy,” powerful” or “ineffectual,” everything else you do will be viewed through that filter. If someone likes you, she’ll look for the best in you. If she mistrusts you, she’ll suspect devious motives.

A University of Glasgow study discovered it takes the brain just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs from a facial expression to determine a person’s emotional state. That’s why you have to walk in to a meeting room already expressing the emotions you want to project.

You can prime your brain to display a “believable truth.” You have different goals than an actor in a play, but the sense of conviction and authenticity you want to project is fundamentally the same. Here’s how to display confidence and positive energy:

  • Think of any occasion where you were confident and successful. What’s important is identifying the right emotion.
  • Picture that past success clearly. Recall the feeling of certainty, confidence, genuine pride, and remember or imagine how you looked and sounded.
  • Picture yourself at the upcoming meeting with the same sense of confidence and pride. The more you repeat this rehearsal, the more you increase your ability to automatically produce the expressions and body language triggered by that positive emotion.

You shook hands

Touch is the most powerful and primitive nonverbal cue, but it’s not enough to shake hands. Devote time to cultivate a great handshake! The right handshake can give you instant credibility. The wrong one can cost you the job or contract. No “dead fish” or “bone-crusher” grips. The first makes you appear to be a wimp and the second signals that you are a bully.

Handshake behaviour has cultural variations, but to ace the ideal handshake in North America, follow these guidelines:

  • Make sure your right hand is free.
  • Offer your hand with your palm facing sideways. When a person offers his hand with the palm upwards, it is considered to be a submissive gesture. When someone offers his hand with the palm downwards (or twists downward during the handshake) it sends a message of superiority. Offering a sideways hand sends a message of equality and confidence.
  • Don’t be overpowering but shake firmly.
  • Look directly into the other person’s eyes (look long enough to know what colour they are).
  • Smile.
  • Face the other person fully.
  • Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand touches the web of the other person’s. If people don’t get full palm contact, they wonder what the other person is hiding.
  • Start talking before you let go.
  • Don’t look down when you step back. That’s a submission signal.

While a great handshake is important for all professionals, it is especially key for women. Their confidence is evaluated by their handshake quality even more than with their male counterparts.

Drop these small mistakes and let your body, brain and touch help you make the most positive impression!

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.

© Troy Media


lousy first impression

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