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How to recover from a negative first impression

30th May 2019 | 11:00am

It turns out the old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a great first impression,” may not be true after all.

There’s a great deal of pressure around making a positive first impression–and for good reason. Some studies say an impression is formed within the first seven seconds of meeting someone. First impressions happen quickly, which is why we dress up for a job interview or a date.

So what happens when your first impression is less than favorable? Say on your first encounter with a new client, your car broke down on the way to work, making you late for the meeting, and then after leaving them waiting, you call them by the wrong name. The encounter might have left your new client assuming that you are frazzled and unprofessional.

It can be difficult to recover from bad first impressions. This is partially because our brains have a hard time adapting to change and don’t like to accept information that is contrary to what we already believe. It’s easier for your client to continue to think that you’re unprofessional, even when presented with information to the contrary. You may show up on time to the next meeting and call your client by the right name, yet they may still hold on to that negative first impression of you. Despite this, there is hope. It’s not impossible to recover, says professional coach Janet Zaretsky.

Here’s what you should do:

Apologize when necessary

If you’ve done or said something offensive, apologize, but Zaretsky says, don’t overdo it. “Most people are very forgiving and will move on if you do,” she says. When apologizing, make sure it’s authentic. Don’t focus on the reasons why you did or said something; simply apologize for your behavior and state your desire to rectify the relationship and start over. Avoid apologizing over and over, bringing up that negative first encounter and reminding the person of what they first thought of you.

Get over your negative self-talk

Part of the reason it’s so difficult to recover from a poor first impression, Zaretsky says, is that we tend to ruminate on it too much ourselves. By replaying the situation over and over in our own heads and beating ourselves up for what we said or did, we tend to show up the next time trying too hard to not repeat the mistake or impress that we missed an opportunity to show our true selves.

Our brain chemicals also don’t help the situation. “When we experience a moment of embarrassment or shame, we are secreting a negative ‘chemical cocktail’ that puts us into a survival posture,” says Zaretsky. When in this state, our brain’s ability to connect, empathize, and be our full self is diminished. The other person also senses our discomfort, further compounding the situation. Forgiving yourself and letting go of the embarrassment frees you to be your authentic self the next time you come face-to-face with the person. If this individual had an inaccurate first impression of you, showing them your true self is the best way to change their opinion.

Find out how people perceive you

Most of us don’t know what type of impression we give. We think of ourselves in a certain way and assume that others see us in that light as well. To find out how accurate your assumptions are about the type of first impression you are making with people, Zaretsky recommends interviewing three to five people who are close to you and who you trust to tell you the truth. Let them know that you are working on your professional development and would appreciate their honest feedback about what they first thought of you when you met.

Avoid being offended by their comments, but instead use them to be better aware of how you are perceived by others, so you can make any necessary changes.