It’s not impossible to overcome a bad first impression. In fact, research shows us how. But why would you put yourself behind the eight ball if you don’t have to? Especially when it comes to forming impressions on really important things, like whether or not you’re coming across as trustworthy or smart.
You can do better than winging it, and science should give you pause on doing so. I was blown away at just how fast people form such first impressions. Research from Princeton University shows that someone you’ve just met will decide if you’re trustworthy or not in a 10th of a second.
The researchers conducted five experiments seeking to discern first impressions one person would have of another regarding not only trustworthiness, but attractiveness, likability, competence, and aggressiveness as well. The initial impressions generated after a 10th of a second did not vary from impressions generated among those who were free to take all the time they needed to form an impression.
Whoa. So how can you possibly mold perceptions that are formed literally in the blink of an eye?
Well, I can offer guidance on what to do in that opening moment (if not for the opening 10th of a second). Sending signals that you’re trustworthy starts first from a place of sincerity (i.e., not trying to be phony to overly manipulate impressions). Then, it’s about mindful body language.
Here’s a powerful mnemonic to help ensure that you ASSURE the newcomer with your body lingo:
Awareness of hand and head movements: Pointing at someone sends an overly aggressive signal, as does crossing arms and “burying” the hands. In fact, body language experts recommend you show your palms as much as possible. It signals peaceful intent and that you’re not hiding anything.
As for the head, tilting it indicates a willingness to adopt a more vulnerable position. The tilted head was a favorite technique used by President Obama when debating an opponent–it engendered less hostility and resistance.
Smile: A genuine smile can relax and even disarm. Also, when you’re smiling, it’s difficult to have a furrowed brow, which can send an unintended signal of a lack of acceptance.
We all have enough negative ions in our life. Being a positive one right from the get-go draws people to you and enhances their desire to trust you (again, as long as it’s a genuine smile).
Signs of absorption: You’re far more trustworthy when you show you’re listening. So send signals that you’re listening, absorbing, and considering what the other person is saying. This includes nodding (without overdoing it, which can be distracting), bringing your hands to your chin as a sign of deep consideration, and showing empathy in your facial expressions when warranted. It’s about subtly creating a human connection. It’s the tactic I have used most to build trust as a leader of very diverse, expansive organizations.
Uplift: This is related to smiling but is broader. In general, approach the others as if you want to uplift them in some way. Even intently listening and using appropriate facial expressions when someone is angry, distracted, or relaying horrible news can be uplifting in that the other person feels heard. An uplifting mindset triggers instinctive things like standing upright, leaning forward, showing energy, mindfully choosing words, and yes, smiling and listening.
Reflecting: Mirroring another’s facial expressions, arm position, or gestures helps create a sense of commonality and connection. It’s not about suddenly morphing into someone you’re not. It’s about paying attention to the movements and intricacies of others’ communication and reflecting it back so that they can subconsciously see more of themselves in you, which inherently builds trust.
Eye contact: Research shows people who fail to maintain eye contact during discussion are seen as more deceptive and less sincere. On the other side of the coin, research shows those who look others directly in the eye are much more believable.
With regard to being perceived as smart in a first encounter, the good news is if you’ve read the above, you’re already doing the most important thing, according to research. You’re looking your conversation partner in the eye.
Experts also say that being expressive in your speech (modulating the pitch and volume of your voice and not speaking too slowly, with too many pauses, and in a monotone fashion) boosts perceptions of intelligence.
So if you’re smart and trusting of this article, you’ll convince others you’re smart and trustworthy as well.
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