A Second Chance to Fix a Bad First Impression

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If you've put your worst foot forward the first time you meet someone, all is not lost. There's a way to shake awful first impressions.

There’s nothing worse than walking away from a job interview or meeting someone for the first time and smashing the heel of your hand to forehead while crying out, “I really blew it!”

We’re constantly told how important it is to make a good first impression, but what happens if you had a bad day or made a flub while speaking or you just aren’t that warm of a person when people first meet you.Can you recover?

Heidi Grant Halvorson says, yes, you can get a chance at a second impression and wrote about how you can in an article for the Harvard Business Review (she’s so sure of it that she even has a new book on the subject No One Understands You and What To Do About It).

In an interview with Charlie Herman, host of Money Talking, Halvorson says one of the biggest issues in making a good impression is that we often think we know how we're coming off, but in truth, we have no idea what's going on in other people's minds when they meet us for the first time. That's why she says we need to ask trusted friends how people perceive us. And then we need to be intentional about how we interact with people around us.

(Listen above for the complete interview.)

First, she suggests empathy. Usually, she says, when we first meet, we're sizing each other up with two key questions:

  1. Are you friend or foe?
  2. Are you competent? That is, will you be a potentially powerful ally or enemy?

As we unconsciously answer these two questions, our brains are painting portraits of the people around us in the first moments we meet. And those pictures — often drawn in caricature — can be very hard to erase.

Because of our fears about making a good first impression, especially at work, Halvorson says our initial instincts are to try to come across as smart and competent. But she argues that in that first meeting, warmth is more important. The first impressions people have of us come from their guts, so it's not about how good you are at your job, yet. In a job interview, you'll get to prove that with your resume and your answers to questions. But before you exude confidence, you need to show people you'll be a team player and someone who's easy to manage. 

Halvorson says it's also important to be deliberate about what your body is doing: Smile when people smile at you, make eye contact, nod and affirm your colleagues' comments because it’s not just about what you say, but how you communicate non-verbally with other people. 

And if you do make a bad impression, she suggests two ways to turn it around:

  1. The Long View: Over time, provide the people around you with consistent evidence that their first impression is wrong. For example, if you have a reputation for being late, be early for weeks on end, over and over. Arriving on time once or twice will seem like a fluke; being ready, right on time, every time, will get people to reassess their opinion about your timeliness.
  1. Quick Fix: If you get the sense someone doesn't like you, ask to be assigned to that person. You'll have the chance to have that person rely on you for results. If you can deliver, you can expect they will change how they look at you.