Make a good first impression. Like a mantra, this thought gets chiselled into our minds from a young age. So when we don’t land the job, don’t seal the deal or don’t get the date, so often we blame it on making a bad first impression. And since we invest so much importance on these quick judgments, the tendency is to think all hope is lost after making a bad first impression.
The basis of judgment
Studies have shown that judgments based on even just seeing a photograph of someone (for even one-tenth of a second!) can be accurate… most of the time. But not all the time. And that’s the problem. Like stereotyping, certain traits can be attributed to a particular person, but not in all cases.
Our brains have developed to be able to quickly judge a person’s character. They’ve developed this way to protect ourselves from harm, but brain development has fallen out of sync with our current reality. The reality for most readers is no longer one of survival, but one of relative abundance compared to the time when we had to hunt and scrounge for our next meal, deciding who we could trust and who to fear.
But despite no longer being in survival mode, our brain maintains its laziness. Applying labels like doctor, police officer, Buddhist, Christian, Indian, American, capitalist, environmentalist are just the mind’s way of making its job easier. When looking deeply at these ‘er,’ ‘ist’ and ‘an’ suffixes we see that they’re just characters on a page that make up a word, like characters in a movie. It’s our choice to attribute importance to them or not. While in the cinema we suspend our disbelief so that we can enjoy the movie for what it is, fiction. Then as we walk out of the cinema we release the notion that those characters in the movie were real. Similarly, we control how much importance we attribute to people’s identities or whether to see their true selves underneath the disguise of their occupation, race or religion. One major way to control how we identify and judge people is through communication.
Observation vs. evaluation
In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg points out the power of communication to reframe our relationships with ourselves and others. ‘Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.’
In the nonviolent communication process, instead of communicating in such a way that evaluation is mixed in with observation, we separate the two. So rather than saying, ‘He is lazy,’ we can reframe our communication to safely point to the facts, ‘He hasn’t worked a single job in four years despite having been offered jobs on three different occasions.’
So rather than letting our emotions hijack the communication process, we can cut out the judgment while getting our point across just by sticking to the facts. We’re observing the facts without needing to judge and we’re observing ourselves in the process, a highly underrated aspect of communication. Our internal communication is just as much a part of the communication process with someone as the words coming out of our mouths because how we feel affects our subconscious verbal and non-verbal responses.
By changing our vocabulary we can lessen our preconceptions in favour of fact-based communication. Identities, such as occupation or nationality, naturally invite judgment. Right after ‘Hello,’ ‘What do you do?’ invariably seems to follow. Since this question is inevitable rather than reacting unconsciously we can change how we respond. Instead of saying ‘I’m a doctor,’ ‘I practice medicine’ is a perfectly fine substitute that indicates action rather than identity. Where the listener was expecting to hear a title and forming a judgment based on where they are on the social ladder in comparison, they’re presented with a statement of fact. Rather than saying ‘I’m Indian,’ the answer ‘I’m from India’ substitutes geographic situation for citizenship—a prime cause of nationalistic pride and racism. Both examples help strip out the judgments that come from associating ourselves with an identity because they are simply rooted in fact rather than identity.
Labels have no place in a communication style based on fact. So part of the vocabulary-changing process also involves cutting out words entirely. Labels like lazy, mean, cheap and crazy serve no purpose when facts are substituted to describe a person’s actions.
Changing vocabulary takes getting used to and requires more mental effort to determine the best way to communicate in any given situation, but it is worth the extra effort since it helps us connect on a field of higher truth. Mindful communication such as this comes from the heart—it originates from a place of thoughtful action rather than reaction.
So to be true to ourselves and connect to those we’re communicating with, we can start at the beginning: right with the very first impression. When meeting someone for the first time all we need is awareness, particularly in that very first second—being present with a person, even if it’s just taking a few moments to look into the other’s eyes, and sharing the connection without the filter of judgment clouding our hearts. This way we can relate through our similarities rather than separate ourselves through judgments. Connecting this way instills empathy, so whatever deficiencies we may have immediately picked out in a ‘stranger’ become quirks that we can accept as with our friends, and whatever good qualities we observe become reasons to celebrate.
UB Hawthorn writes for and edits The Mindful Word journal of engaged living. You can visit him online at www.themindfulword.org.