Our language is full of conflicting adages: “He who hesitates is lost” as opposed to “Look before you leap”. “A penny saved is a penny earned” versus “Money is the root of all evil”. Negotiators are familiar with the notion that “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but at the same time worry “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
Our concerns are well placed: first impressions do matter, and a bad first impression is difficult to undo no matter how different we really are “inside”.
Disciplined negotiators know that how the other side perceives us will have a material impact on our ability to generate trust in our relationship. If we cannot build trust, we will not establish a collaborative negotiation environment with the other party. This will result in a more positional engagement, producing sub-optimal results (assuming we reach agreement at all). Simply put, a good first impression is a key step in our journey toward an optimal result from our negotiations.
Research shows that our brains are wired to make snap judgments of people, partially because of our “fight or flight” instinct. When we meet another person for the first time, our innate response is to “size them up” using what social psychologist Amy Cuddy refers to as “spontaneous trait inferences.” Many factors go into the rapid analysis our brain performs at the moment of introduction to a new person. Cuddy highlights two critical variables that will determine whether you feel good or bad about the other party: warmth and competence. (For a thorough discussion of the topic see Craig A. Lampert’s article about Cuddy’s research in the December issue of Harvard Magazine at http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/11.)
Here are some tips on how to improve first impressions:
• The first assessment is about warmth. The other party instinctively will determine whether we are friend or foe. Many people assume incorrectly that in a negotiation the goal is to establish “power” from the start. It is not. Our goal is to put the other side at ease. A firm handshake, eye contact, a gentle tone and a smile are all vital to establishing an initial sense that we are not to be feared. Ultimately, we want to speak of ourselves as “joint problem solvers” to drive a spirit of cooperation. People don’t want to open up to and solve problems with those who make them feel defensive.
• Next is the issue of competence. Are we capable of accomplishing whatever it is the parties need to do? Competence and warmth are not mutually exclusive: the fact that we seem “nice” does not mean we won’t be seen as competent. In fact, Cuddy determined that when someone is perceived as both warm and competent, it evokes admiration from the other party. We know what we’re doing and we’re nice to boot! She found that people who are seen as competent and cold often become targets; other people want to tear them down because they seem skilled, but are not likable.
• To establish competence, we must exude confidence. Obviously this requires being prepared on the subject matter for our meetings with the other party. It also means physical confidence: sitting up straight, hands in front and legs uncrossed. Cuddy’s research has found that a confident posture will actually increase our testosterone balance, making us feel more confident. When our arms are folded and legs crossed, we are “coiling up” like an animal that feels like it is prey and our testosterone level and confidence decreases.
While it is noble for us to aspire to not judge a book by its cover, be aware that despite your intentions, others will judge you by your cover. To be Deal Whisperers we must learn to handle ourselves in a way that we will be judged most favorably: as warm and competent.