How to make an awful first impression

By Ray DePaul

In the last few weeks I had the opportunity to meet two highly successful individuals - call them Barney and Fred. Barney left me inspired and thankful for the chance to spend a small amount of time with him. Fred left me cold. This really bothered me. Both were highly accomplished and people that I could definitely learn from. Was it some baggage that I brought to the conversation with Fred? Did I do something different in each encounter? Did Fred feel the same way about me?

Then I read about Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy. She explained that on a first meeting, people evaluate you based on your warmth, then your competence. They are looking for signs that they can trust you before they look for evidence that they can respect you. I had witnessed this difference with Barney and Fred. My positive interaction with Barney started with a genuine interest in what I was doing, even though the purpose of the meeting was to discuss what he was up to. This made an instant impression on me. My negative interaction with Fred opened with a single line designed to make it clear who was more important in this conversation. My impression of Fred never recovered.

First impressions are so powerful that they can hijack the entire purpose of the interaction. As you embark on job interviews, curiosity conversations, or just casual networking, don't be so quick to try to prove you are intelligent or accomplished. Your first goal is to come across as a warm, trustworthy person. Once you have established that, they will be more open to hearing about your skills and experience. When I used to go on job interviews, I would open with a simple, "how is your day going?" and then I would acknowledge that the interview process was as hard for the interviewer as it was for the interviewee. I was amazed at how many people thanked me for that. I wasn't being manipulative. I had sat on their side of the interview table countless times and I knew they were likely exhausted. I was being empathetic.

It's worth understanding that our desire to engage with trustworthy people is rooted deep in our evolution. Our survival has relied more on our ability to evaluate trustworthiness rather than competence. The result is that most of us are really good at seeing through fakes. So you can't fake warmth. You need to be genuine.

Life is all about building relationships. Hopefully, the simple rule of showing warmth before competence might help you in your professional and personal lives.