How To Recover From A Bad First Impression

You blew it the first time around. Here’s how to make it right.

How To Recover From A Bad First Impression
[Photo: Flickr user Arek Olek]

In the shower, on your commute, as you drift off to sleep: That botched first impression haunts every spare moment with a gut-punch feeling and a palm to the face.


But what if you had a second chance to make it right?

Understanding what went awry is the first step–and if you’ve been mulling it over for days, you probably have a painfully acute grasp on every awkward moment of the meeting. But why the encounter went poorly was, in a way, always out of your control.

The Three Lenses Of A First Impression

There are three “lenses” involved in every first impression, writes Heidi Grant Halvorson in this month’s Harvard Business Review.

  1. The “trust lens” sizes up one’s warmth and competence.
  2. The “power lens” seeks to measure your usefulness to the beholder’s own position.
  3. The “ego lens” decides whether this new connection is a worthwhile ally, or a potential threat.

These all happen snap-judgment style.

If this all sounds a little unenlightened, that’s because our brain’s amygdala are assessing situations in milliseconds, before our new friends’ (or foes’) faces are even consciously perceived. With these lightning-fast processes going on in each others’ minds before we even open our mouths to say “Nice to meet you,” first impressions seem decided from the start. The second time around, you can be prepared with these tips:


Decide If It’s Worth It

Did you bomb that interview or meeting as badly as you think? We’re poor judges of how we’re perceived, research shows. Before reaching out for an apologetic follow-up, get outside advice from an even-tempered friend or colleague who’s familiar with both sides. Getting out of your own head helps see the memory more clearly–and in the retelling, it might sound better than you thought.

Meet In Person

If you’ve decided the screw-up is worth reaching out for a second chance, request to meet in person, in a neutral location if possible. For busy people, email and phone calls might be your only shot, but these can’t relate the most important messages you’ll need to send to recover respect: Warmth and competence. All of those “lenses” are part of the first phase of thinking, according to Halvorson. Phase two is where you’ll have to prove yourself–whether the first impression went poorly or not. She writes:

If you started off on the wrong foot and need to overcome a bad impression, the evidence will have to be plentiful and attention-getting in order to activate phase two thinking. Keep piling it on until your perceiver can no longer tune it out, and make sure that the information you’re presenting is clearly inconsistent with the existing ideas about you.

Seek To Understand, Not To Be Understood

This is part of what makes introverts good at networking: The ability to read a situation, and assess the motives and feelings of the person you’re meeting. Respond before fully understanding the other person’s context, and you’ll invariably end up cracking a joke that falls flat (or offensive), or blurting out too much information when it’s inappropriate.

Be Confident

Easier said than done when you’re already slinking back to a second chance, right? But if you’re granted a second shot, an embarrassing worst case scenario already happened. Show up confident and humble–that warm/competent mix–and you’ll disarm those automatic reflexes of power-grappling that are working against you. If your new connection is giving you a do-over, don’t go in groveling.

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.