Meeting with a Prospective Client? Inspire Trust in the Blink of an Eye

Studies show that it takes just milliseconds to form an initial impression about another person. Silent signals of nonverbal communication are sent and received before the first words between two people are ever spoken. The facial expressions people make and how they walk, stand, sit and even hold their heads can influence other peoples’ perceptions about their trustworthiness, competence, confidence and more. For attorneys especially, sending the right nonverbal cues is important. It can help ensure good first impressions — and consequently positive outcomes — when meeting with new clients, interviewing with partners at hiring firms or when stepping in front of juries.

Everyone who meets another person brings their own backgrounds, unconscious prejudices and stereotypes to that meeting, and snap judgements about another person are often made based on these factors. Even things out of a person’s control, such as physical features, can engender an initial judgement about the person’s trustworthiness, honesty or another personality characteristic.

For example, research has shown that faces that have more distance between the eyes and eyebrows are judged to be more trustworthy than faces with more narrow distances between the two features. People who are more baby-faced get higher marks for honesty. And a study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, found that even eye color can affect how people are perceived. People with brown eyes were deemed to be more trustworthy than those with blue eyes — but not because of the eye color itself. Rather, it’s because of facial features that are typically more characteristic of people with brown eyes, such as a rounder and broader chin, a broader mouth and larger eyes, the study said.

While you can’t alter the features of your face or control every impression people may have of you, you can overcome challenges to making a positive impression by being aware of how you might come across to others, and by altering your body language to turn people’s snap decisions from negative to positive.

Consider the following tips from nonverbal communications experts:

  • Walk Tall: Don’t slouch when walking into a meeting room. Pull your shoulders back and straighten up; this will show clients and potential employers that you are confident and competent.
  • Wear a Friendly Face: The expressions people wear on their faces make a big impact on first impressions. Smile when you meet someone, but be careful not to keep the smile frozen on your face. Instead, maintain a friendly expression with the corners of the mouth turned upward and forehead and eyebrows relaxed. Even when you think nobody is looking, keep your expression friendly and relaxed. A person wearing a grouchy expression who suddenly flashes a big smile when being looked at is likely to be judged untrustworthy.
  • Look People in the Eye: Making eye contact shows interest in the other person and radiates confidence. International executive coach, body language expert and author of The Silent Language of Leaders, Carol Kinsey Goman, recommends making a practice of noticing the eye colors of other people when meeting them.
  • Shake Hands: When meeting someone, walk up to them to shake hands, if possible, rather than reaching across the table. Keep your arm relaxed with your elbow by your side so the handshake is not stiff and distant.
  • Lean in: Lean in slightly toward the other person when speaking, but avoid leaning too close, which is likely to make the other person uncomfortable. Respect personal space in professional situations by staying about two feet away.

As leadership guru Peter F. Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Learn to communicate what isn’t being said using positive nonverbal cues.

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