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Negotiating First Impressions

First impressions never have a second chance.

- Charles R. Swindoll

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

- Andrew Grant

We don’t know where our first impression came from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.

- Malcolm Gladwell

Introduction: A First Impression Story

Retired DC Attorney Winston Haythe reminisced about first impressions and Chicago-based Northern District of Illinois U.S. Federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz (1905-2001). On the bench, despite Chicago’s inclement weather, Marovitz required all attorneys to leave their outerwear in the anteroom. He wanted all attorneys to look and behave as gentlepersons. When the attorneys met in his private office, Marovitz wore a burgundy smoking jacket symbolizing an alternative type of formal wear and yet a getting-down-to-business approach.

It is worth spending time to plan first impressions in any dispute resolution process whether it be mediation or executive coaching.

Secret #12: Make the First Contact Work

According to Elaine F. Re' in her book 101 Secrets to Negotiating Success-Surefire Strategies for Negotiating Success in Every Area of Your Life:

Don’t ever forget that the first impression the other party has of you will give them a lasting impression of how much power you have.

Negotiation is an exchange and the first moments count. How one looks; the first words; the greeting; the handshake (if there is one) all create that first and often lasting impression.

If you present yourself in a positive, assertive manner, you will be regarded as a person with authority and treated with respect you deserve.

Secret #44: It’s All In The First Five Minutes

Planning and preparation for a meeting should create trust and respect before the actual meeting. One should project the attitude that one is prepared and confident. Start the conversation with something-some question that demonstrates you care about the other parties in the meeting. Maybe ask about transportation to the meeting. The first five minutes set the tone for the entire meeting.

Caveat: The first five minutes are important, but don’t get caught in the five-minute rule trap. There are occasions when a person is out of sorts initially. Maybe there is a personal crisis of which the person just learned. Maybe that first five minutes does not tell the whole story. Allow the other person to break free of the five-minute box if there is adequate reasoning.

This is also relevant to you. You may find the occasion where you are not at your best during the first five minutes and you need a second chance.

Confidence, Nervousness, Self-Control

People can always tell when a person has handled things for themselves; and then they treat that person as one of themselves.”

- Rudyard Kipling (quote changed slightly to be pronoun sensitive)

An effective dispute resolve needs to exude confidence from the very beginning.

According to Gerard I. Nierenberg and Henry H. Calero in How to Read a Person Like a Book - And What To Do About It:

A confident person is likely to talk without hand-to-face gestures like covering the mouth or nose-and head scratching, so in reading gestures for confidence, one should for a doubt or other negative gesture that would contradict the feeling that is being projected. A proud, erect stance, often seen in the person who has accomplished much and knows where they are going, is also a clear indication of confidence.

Dispute Resolution Meeting Room.

An effective mediator, arbitrator, negotiator, executive coach etc. pays attention to the meeting room, which often sets the stage. In the ideal, the meeting room will be:

- Spacious, so there is room to move about if necessary

- Round or oval table, signifying no sides to the situation

- Comfortable chairs, not hard or soft

- Lots of window light

- Nourishing refreshments might be nice

- Audio-visuals should already be arranged

- Writing materials or notepads or post-it’s are helpful.

Persuasion Law of Involvement

Example 1: A walks into a newly-discovered coffee shop but is unsure whether they really want coffee or something more substantive. The manager behind the counter immediately calls out a jaunty “Hello.” They are immediately engaged and the sale is made.

Example 2: A is at the farmers’ market but is unsure whether they want the breakfast sandwich again this week. The farmer immediately asks them if they enjoyed the sandwich last week. They are engaged and the sale is made.


Scenario: B is mediating between a manager and a postal delivery worker. B decides they must dress neutrally and in between both parties. So, B does not wear a suit and tie since that may be associated with management. Instead B wears an open collar shirt plus a navy blue sports jacket. First impressions of neutrality are important in mediation.

If one party arrives before the other, the party can wait in the waiting room or in the mediation room without the mediator present.

Caucuses: If causes or separate sessions are necessary, a neutral mediator will pay approximately the same amount of time with all parties.

Dress Code by Richard Thompson Ford

Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford has become an expert of dress in his book Dress Code: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.

Historically, men used to dress flamboyantly and were prone to peacocking in bold colors, demonstrating their social rank, power, and wealth. But in the late 18th century this began to change in Europe.

As Robin Givhan notes in the Washington Post:

…They’ve (Men) used fashion to enhance their authority and elevate their stature, all while communicating a message of elegant refusal. Generations of men would have the culture believe that they’re far too preoccupied with business, government, technology and other so-called serious pursuits to involve themselves with the flourishes of fashion. In their repetitive dress code of tailored suits, khaki trousers and golf shirts, they send the message that they’ve renounced superficiality and frivolousness as beneath their gender’s dignity… We choose our clothes for a host of reasons: comfort, appropriateness, self-expression, tradition. Our wardrobe is also filled with coded messages about power, wealth and status.

…And this masculine dress code has served men well… In assessing dress, Ford notes that there really isn’t anything particularly feminine or masculine about clothing. Trousers and dresses can be tailored to fit any body — anatomy is beside the point… And Ford makes an elegant argument that because fashion is a living language, it has the capacity to evolve.

So, in these days, bright colors, decoration, jewelry, ruffles are being seen as the attire of the powerless. Tailored suits equal power. Showing skin and tattoos in many professions also indicates unprofessionalism.


As Beth Taylor writes in PayScale:

The trouble with first impressions is that they are, by definition, made with very little information — perhaps just how well a new acquaintance makes eye contact or what brand of shoe he is wearing. Sometimes our first impressions are correct, other times incorrect. Understanding common first impressions can help us present ourselves to our best advantage at work.

The psychology of first impressions is so fascinating. Some seem to believe that the more facial piercings a person has, the less intelligent they are. Some associate piercings with creativity and extraversion. Interestingly, men with shaved heads are viewed as more dominant, taller, and powerful. Some consider visible tattoos to be unprofessional and untidy.

First impressions are all about “thin slicing;” that is, making deductions with very little information.


The Psychology of First Impressions

See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

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