Although first impressions don’t always stick, they do inform how much time, attention, and trust you earn right off the bat. On average, first impressions are solidified in just seven seconds. In a high-stakes or high-stress situation, that tiny window may be the only opportunity you have to start a conversation. Whether you’re cold-calling a prospect or conducting an FBI hostage negotiation, we’ve outlined some tips for making those first seconds count.
1. Don’t Start with Yourself
Most people make the mistake of trying to win their counterpart over by talking about themselves. In their opening line, they rattle off their qualifications, their experience, their goals, or the challenge that they’re currently faced with. In effect, they ignore their counterpart’s perspective and run the risk of confirming their worst assumptions. In doing so, they squander those first seven seconds and convince their counterpart to hang up the phone or disengage from the conversation.
2. Establish Trust and Close Competency
In any negotiation, the only way you can establish trust and build influence is to demonstrate an understanding of your counterpart’s point of view. Even if that point of view is something you think is illogical or inconceivable. In the first moments of a negotiation, your counterpart doesn’t care about your life story; they want to know what you can do for them and whether or not they can trust you to do what you say. If you can demonstrate that you see the situation from their perspective, you’ll demonstrate your competence and convince them to trust you.
Watch the video below to see former FBI negotiator Chris Voss talk about making first impressions in a high-stakes scenario.
3. Account for Environment
When it comes to first impressions, a lot is predicated by your environment. What may be acceptable in one situation may be social suicide in the next. Our expectations for first impressions are informed by our culture, context, environment, and emotions. Cultural and contextual expectations can be inferred with a little homework, but that’s no substitute for taking a cold read in the moment. If your assumptions are wrong, your situational awareness will be your saving grace. Scan your environment to pick up on behavioral cues, social expectations, and other environmental factors that may be dictating your counterpart’s current mood and behavior. By using this information to inform your communication strategy, you’ll improve your flexibility and prepare for the next step: conducting an accusation audit.
4. Conduct an Accusation Audit
We’ve already said that it’s a bad idea to open an negotiation by talking about yourself, so what should you start with? If you’re attempting to make a first impression in a tense situation, it’s never a bad idea to begin with an accusation audit. Doing so will help you acclimate to your counterpart’s point of view, help you prepare negative and positive labels, and disarm a potential attack in those first seven seconds.
5. Remember That Last Impressions Are What Stick
There’s some truth behind the showbiz saying that if you give the audience a big finish, they’ll forgive you for anything. Like a key, a first impression can help you get your foot in the door, but it’s not enough to maintain a relationship or keep your counterpart engaged. The fact that first impressions are made in just seven seconds means that they’re highly susceptible to change. Just because you’ve won your counterpart over in those first moments doesn’t mean that you’ve forever earned their trust and approval. After you’ve made a positive first impression, focus on proving it right by proceeding with emotional intelligence and using tactical empathy, situational awareness, and Black Swan negotiation skills.
On that same note, remember that first impressions can be redeemed. It’s easy to prove a first impression wrong, but it’s incredibly challenging to correct for a negative last impression. Your last impression—the impression you leave on your audience after the negotiation has come to a close—can make or break relationships. How many movies have you seen, or books have you read that ended poorly and completely turned you off? If you assert your power to get your counterpart to concede to your terms against their will, you may “win” in the moment, but you’ll lose in the long run. Why? Because you left a negative last impression by ignoring their needs. A poor last impression will also influence implementation; if you resent or dislike your counterpart following a negotiation, you’ll be less likely to follow through on the plan they designed and less willing to trust them in the future. When in doubt, don’t force an agreement if it means burning the bridge that got you there.