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What About Second Impressions?

Can you improve the way people think of you?

Key points

  • First impressions are important, but it is possible to improve upon acquaintance.
  • The unconscious mind has power over how we are perceived and how people react to us.
  • To become an intentional leader, it’s important to respect the power of the unconscious mind and understand its limitations.
Source: Jopwell/Pexels

First impressions mean a lot. It's crucial to be intentional about the way you come across when you meet new people. But what about the second impression? If you're intentional about your leadership presence, will you improve upon acquaintance, just like some of us do naturally when you get to know us? We may seem a little cranky, at first, say, but after you get used to us you learn that we really do have that heart of gold.

It turns out that if we portray positive personality traits—such as helpfulness and honesty—our audiences will perceive us to be physically more attractive. And the reverse is also true: if we are rude, we’re perceived to be uglier.

The finding illuminates something fascinating about the unconscious mind—it’s weirdly literal. I've written before about a study that found that if you make people put their fingers on rough sandpaper they will respond more empathetically to the next story they hear. The rough touch reminds us, apparently, of rough experiences, and prompts us to think of that parallel when we hear a sad story.

On this level, too, we apparently equate physical attractiveness with internal attractiveness. It’s the beauty bias all over again—pretty people do better in life than less-pretty people, just as tall people do, on average, and people with symmetrical faces.

Apparently, our unconscious minds are both incredibly fast at processing information, and pretty dumb about it at the same time. We make literal connections between physical states and mental states. If you give us a hot cup of coffee to hold, we feel more warmly toward the next person we meet.

Those of us working to become intentional leaders need to understand thoroughly the workings of the unconscious mind, because its power over how we are perceived and how people react to us is so all-consuming.

Time and time again, I see people preparing for a big presentation avoid rehearsal because, they say, they don’t want to get stale with the material. Then they go out on stage, and start to wander all over the space allotted to them, because they’re suddenly nervous, they haven’t done the work to become intentional, and their feet betray their nerves.

Or they repeat themselves over and over again, getting into verbal traps that are the result of their brains freezing like the proverbial deer in the public speaking headlights, unable to find their way out.

Or they develop dry mouth unexpectedly and take to swigging huge slugs of water every 20 seconds or so, creating a visual (and vocal) distraction for the audience that eventually takes over any message they were trying to convey.

If you want to become an intentional leader, you need to learn to both respect the power of the unconscious mind and understand its limitations. It’s powerful, faster than your conscious mind, and very literal. If you wrestle with it, you will almost certainly lose. Instead, learn to work with it, through deliberate practice, mental image-building, and careful mastery.

Make both the first and the second impression count. Make them both successful. Make them intentional.

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