The Importance of First Impressions

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Friend or Foe: The Importance of First Impressions in Interviews

When we meet someone for the first time, we pretty much immediately have a 'gut' reaction that tells us whether we like this person - whether in fact we see them as a friend or a foe.

Where does that instinct come from, and how does it come up so quickly with such a damning or embracing reaction?

More importantly, if we're out to create a great first impression when going for a new job, how can we stack the odds in our favour and flash 'friend' into our interviewer's consciousness?

Not to get too bogged down in technical mumbo-jumbo - it's commonly understood that the brain has two hemispheres, the left dealing with logic, and the right with creativity. This is what we know as the cortex, or new brain.

But there's also a third dimension, the hypo-thalamus or pre-historic brain (in fact, the brain stem) which is solely responsible for instincts. In ancient times, this was essential for making split-second life saving decisions.

More recent research from Switzerland refers to the pre-historic brain as the 'Gatekeeper'. Incapable of rational thinking, the Gatekeeper's sole function is to instantly decide whether someone is a friend or a foe, and it judges purely on instinct. If the Gatekeeper is stressed by an approach, it switches on the fight or flight response, and immediately shuts down all other message receptors, making any further attempts at communication impossible. In today's terms that translates into you never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Understanding how this relates to modern life is essential for effective communication. Interviewees must learn to build a 'Language of Trust', and as the Gatekeeper doesn't have the capacity to think, that language isn't just verbal. In the first 10 to 20 seconds of meeting an interviewer, your instinctive signals must convey the message of a 'friend'. This will come through in your body language, with movements, gestures, facial expressions and eye contact being open and relaxed. Your voice modulation and tone must be calm, and the speed of your speech controlled and gentle. Finally, don't invade his or her personal space. The Gatekeeper's decision will also be based on your appearance, clothes, smell, enthusiasm and posture.

The total focus at this stage is to get past the Gatekeeper so you can develop and build rapport, and open the interviewer's message receptors. Once you're past this initial first impression, you can get on with the job of developing a relationship with your interviewer, as the gate will be open to what you have to offer.

Finally, let's look at research done at The Thomas Gordon Institute on communication. They looked at the impact of words, voice, face and body, and their contribution to believability. Measuring the effectiveness of each component of communication, they came up with the following:

  • Words = 7 percent
  • Voice = 23 percent
  • Face = 35 percent
  • Body = 35 percent

In other words, our appearance, the gestures we make, and how we deliver our words are more important than what we actually say. Remember, the Gatekeeper has no capacity for rational thought, just an instinctive reaction honed from ancient times. That gut-feeling is really a pre-historic brain feeling. Understanding this will help you to take control and ensure you get off to the very best start.

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