I pulled into the parking lot clogged with construction vehicles with five minutes to spare. The client had asked me to work with their chairman of the board so being late would not make a great first impression. Turning the corner I eyed a rare open spot halfway down the crowded row. As I sped up and signaled to move in, a big black Infiniti coming from the opposite direction signaled the same.
Our cars inched up with no room to turn and stopped. He wasn’t budging and neither was I.
So we sat staring at each other through the windshields. I knew I was about to be late, but I wasn’t giving in. I could wait this out as long as he could. I took my foot off the break and pushed into park. Tick tock, the minutes passed.
Then finally, he couldn’t take any more. Throwing his car into reverse, he muttered something I couldn’t hear and screeched out of the row. I pulled into the coveted space. Victory was worth the wait. Or was it?
As I triumphantly strode to the front door, something dawned on me. What if the guy driving the black Infiniti was the chair? No, I told myself, stop being paranoid. But somewhere in my gut, as I walked down the hallway into the boardroom, I knew this is how the story would play out. I opened the door and there was Infiniti man sitting in a chair, arms crossed, staring me down. No one spoke. Now it was my turn to give in.
“Where did you park?” I asked.
“You mean after you stole my spot?” he quipped. More staring. Then it was my turn to give in. I held out my hand and said, “Let’s start over.” And we did.
Have you ever botched a first impression? Perhaps you spilled coffee on someone’s white shirt or forgot an important prospect’s name. You’ve likely heard the cliché “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Perhaps that’s true, but it’s never too late to change initial impressions and be the person you want others to see. While you can’t undo a faux pas, you can repair negative first impressions.
Address the Elephant in the Room — You can’t move forward if you don’t acknowledge what’s on someone’s mind. Until you address what they care about, they won’t be open to new ideas and information. For example, I worked with a real estate developer who frequently addressed community meetings packed with angry people who didn’t want another housing development going up in their backyard. He says as soon as he started talking people interrupted, argued and shouted at him. As we worked together, it became apparent that he was so focused on explaining his objectives that he failed to adequately address audience concerns. When he reorganized his talk and spoke to their worries at the onset, they were much more receptive to hearing his plans.
Apologize When Necessary — Not every situation requires an apology, but if you’ve offended someone unintentionally, focusing on being right instead of repositioning that first impression will only make things worse. So, apologize quickly and look for cues. Does their body language and facial expression indicate they accept your apology? Try to avoid over-apologizing which can make the other person uncomfortable and not allow the conversation to move on.
But, how do you know if your first impression or corrected first impression was well received?
A recent study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Wake Forest University in North Carolina suggests that self-confidence makes all the difference when knowing if you’ve hit a homerun or struck out with your first impression. They found that if you’re confident in your judgment of the situation, you’re likely to be right. In other words, trust your gut. When you don’t, you can misjudge the way others see you and make the wrong assumption.
Don’t Assume How Others Feel — That’s why it’s critical to share how you feel and not suggest how your impression impacted them. For example, instead of saying, “I know you probably think I’m a real jerk for taking that parking space,” you diffuse the uncomfortable situation by saying, “I feel terrible about our first encounter and realize I may not have seen your blinker on.”
While we don’t get second chances to make first impressions, we always have opportunities to make lasting impressions which are created and honed over time.