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What lies behind a first impression?


We have all heard about the importance of a first impression and how we form one of others in less than 10 seconds, as they do of us.

People often say we shouldn’t judge one another from a first impression. It’s a great idea but very hard to achieve; it is pretty much impossible to meet someone for the first time and think nothing about them at all – good or bad. Just as it is impossible for us as human beings to communicate nothing to others - to have a totally neutral personal image.

The reason for this is basic human instinct; it comes from the inbuilt friend or foe, flight or fight mechanism that we have in us, as a protection mechanism.

Everything we think about another person when we instantly meet them is a combination of what they are projecting to us together with our own experience of the world, these 2 elements help us form a perception of that person. It can be as simple as someone having a similar style of dress or similar mannerisms to someone else we know and our mind projecting our thoughts about them onto the new person. It might not be fair and wholly rationale but it’s reality. It’s how our minds work. Of course, perceptions can be changed, but it takes a bit of time and for the person forming the perception to be open to reappraisal.

So whilst we can’t entirely control how others perceive us, we can consider what we project, in terms of a first impression and ongoing – Read more about the importance of personal branding

There is one theory that seeks to explain what we are assessing when we meet someone, this is detailed in ‘Compelling People' by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. This theory says that when we meet someone, our brain is assessing two elements – their ‘Strength’ and their ‘Warmth’. ‘Strength’ is essentially whether someone is competent, capable, ready and able to do what they need to; vital characteristics, particularly in the work place. ‘Warmth’ is related to whether we can connect with someone, that we feel they have some understanding of us and our position – a sense of shared perspective – a state that is likely to facilitate a professional relationship.

The research goes on to say that when we first meet someone, it is ‘Warmth’ that matters most as without it we are less likely to engage with someone and get to know them.

Of course, the ideal is to balance the two elements, whilst knowing how to vary them, when necessary, in different situations. If you think about two of the extremes – lots of ‘Strength’ and no ‘Warmth’ – that person could be intimidating; at the other end of the scale a warm person with no ‘Strength’  could be subject to pity or be frustrating.

Think for a minute about what cues indicate ‘Strength’ and ‘Warmth’ or a lack of them. This article on the importance of personal impact is likely to give you some clues.

Importantly, where do you think you sit in terms of balancing ‘Strength’ and ‘Warmth’? How does this change with different people and situations? Does this change manifest externally to others and how?

If you’d like to discuss your personal impact, contact me for a complimentary, no obligation 30 minute Career Booster conversation.

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