First impressions play a key role in shaping our opinions of other people. As a young attorney starting out in this competitive business, you cannot afford to make a negative first impression.
According to Harvard scholar Amy Cuddy, there are two crucial judgments people make when they first meet you: “Is this person trustworthy?” and “Is this person strong and competent?”
After many years of studying and measuring subjects’ reactions in controlled settings, Cuddy and her colleagues have concluded that 80-90% of first impressions are based on these two aspects. We immediately try to establish whether the person in front of us has a hidden agenda or is transparent, and whether they are genuinely competent.
Interestingly enough, her research shows that, contrary to popular belief, people focus on trustworthiness first and competence later. Competence in an individual we deem unworthy of our trust is perceived as a negative trait, Cuddy explains. “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve achieved trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat,” she says.
While firm handshakes and a confident attitude have commonly been associated with good first impressions, it appears that trust is more important.
Our profession is a first impressions game. If we fail to make a good first impression, we won’t get a job, a case, a client, or a promotion. The question is, how can we use Cuddy’s wisdom to our advantage?
Phase 1 - Establishing Trust
Getting people on the defensive can be disastrous in terms of first impressions. “To make an accurate judgment of somebody, you want to bring out their true nature. People need to trust you in order to be themselves,” Cuddy says. “So trying to be the more dominant one in the interaction is probably going to make it harder for you to get accurate information about the other person because it's going to shut them down.”
Appearing dominant can reduce your chances of establishing a warm, natural interaction and building a genuine connection with the person in front of you. “If you are trusting, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you,” Cuddy adds.
After establishing that projecting trust is a worthy goal, we have to think about how to achieve that. Some useful strategies include letting the other person talk first, asking questions, making small talk, and getting them to relax and share details about themselves. According to Cuddy, in some business settings, people believe it’s all about taking control, getting the floor first, speaking first, when in reality, warmth and understanding are more important. While small talk may seem like a waste of time, when the other person perceives your interest in them as genuine, this can make all the difference.
Other strategies to establish trust include standing in a relaxed manner, with your arms uncrossed, maintaining eye contact, putting your phone away, and really focusing on the person in front of you.
Without trust, you are unlikely to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. “If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative,” Cuddy concludes.
Phase 2 - Establishing Competence
Active listening is one thing you can practice to both build trust and project competence. When you ask insightful questions, you are not only showing that you are genuinely interested, but also that you have something to contribute to the conversation. Do not volunteer a solution immediately after the other person mentions a problem. Listen more, listen better, and then show you understand the problem deeply by asking a smart question. Before you can demonstrate your competence in full fling, it is imperative to establish trust.
Preparing for your meeting is also key. If you have done your due diligence and know about the person and the issues at hand, you will be able to project initiative, responsibility, and, ultimately, competence.
When you are meeting a potential client or another important person for the first time, it is crucial to choose your words carefully. People who discuss the failings of colleagues or competitors are seldom perceived as competent. When you are trying to get ahead, you may be tempted to explain how others fail and why you are better. Don’t.
The best way to project competence is through actions. Come prepared, listen, address the issues that are most relevant to the other person in your pitch or presentation, be respectful, try not to hijack the conversation, and let your words and body language convey how important the other party’s plight is to you.
As in every aspect of life, trying too hard can kill your chances of making a great first impression. Stay relaxed, be warm, and let your competence show, rather than advertising your best qualities. In the end, the trust issue is more important. If the other person is not yet sure whether you are competent, the fact that they feel they can trust you might create opportunities for a second meeting. Whereas, if they don’t trust you, they will probably cross you off the list altogether.
Want to learn more? Watch Amy Cuddy explain some of these concepts on this webpage.