First Impressions: What you don’t know about how others see you

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Used with permission.

I’m sure that you, like me, want to put your best foot forward and make a great impression on the people you meet; potential ministry partners, allies and donors. And don’t forget the impression you make on your own employees, friends and family. You’d like to make a good impression all the time on all of them.

First impressions are really important

First impressions are especially important because they form lasting impressions and can affect whether you will even have a relationship or not. And if you do start a relationship, they will determine whether you get off to a good start or a rocky start. You can overcome a rocky first impression, but it is difficult and takes time. No one wants to shoot themselves in the foot at their first encounter, yet so many of us do by the way we present ourselves to other people. Two PhD’s have done extensive research to analyze what goes on in that critical first meeting. Their advice applies not only to first impressions, but to every continuing relationship you have. They wrote about their findings and recommendations in First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You.

You can get the key points of their book free from their website. (The authors reproduced certain pages from their book for people who don’t like to mark up their books.) The book is easy to read, filled with case histories and references to studies that prove the points they are making. It provides great suggestions for what to do to make a great first impression. The authors say there is no one right way to make a good impression and they are not trying to mould you into a specific personality. What counts, they say, is that the impression you make reflects who you really are. When you present the best of who you are, you are making the right impression for you.

Do we see ourselves as they see us?

However, we often do things that we think will make a good impression when in fact others see what we are doing in a very negative light. For instance, you might think that by asking the other person lots of questions you appear interested in them, but they will likely perceive you as private and controlling because you are revealing nothing about yourself and you are unilaterally directing the conversation.

I’m sure everyone will find something they can do to improve their first impressions. I found several. For example, years ago I read that looking into a person’s eyes is too personal, too intense, because they are the “window to the soul.” The advice was to briefly look a person in the eyes and then look somewhere else on or near their face. In this book, they say that making such little eye contact (which you may think is normal and respectful) will make you appear to others as rejecting, uninterested, shy and awkward (ouch!!).

Focus on the other person, not yourself

The book opens with a review of the psychology of first impressions. If you are like the average person, the authors say that you are usually concerned with how you feel about yourself, how you feel about the other person and how the other person feels about you. However, your primary concern should be how the other person feels about him or herself as a result of having met you. The authors also discuss the four “social gifts” that should be something you give to the other person in your first contact.

The bulk of the book is a description of the Seven Fundamentals of a First Impression. This begins with how accessible you appear to be and progresses through showing interest in the other person, the appropriate subject matter for your conversations, the degree of self-disclosure that suits the occasion, your perspective on things and so on. The last few chapters will help you apply their recommendations.

After reading the book, I was standing in line at Tim Horton’s in the suburbs of Elmira (that means, the industrial section on the way into town) and I listened to the conversations going on around me and it was really neat to be able to identify some people who were doing really well and some who should read the book.

Elmira, ON

Elmira, for those who don’t know, is a town of 12,000 people with a rich Old Order Mennonite heritage and is known across Canada as the national headquarters of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. Okay, I have dreams of grandeur. Elmira is the location of our one and only office! But Elmira is also the place where Malcolm Gladwell grew up. He’s the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success.

Here’s a photo of the view from my old office window (in November 2008 we moved down the street to the building at the top right of the photo that has a white stripe near its roof).

Horse and Buggy

Yes, we still hear the clip-clop of horses! Another touch point with days gone by.

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