The first time you meet someone, your brain takes less than seven seconds to decide if that person is trustworthy or deceptive, friend or foe, credible or questionable, powerful or submissive, and has high or low status in their organization. And you do all of this by interpreting cues from their body language.
You have probably developed instincts about the meaning of certain nonverbal signals, such as open palm gestures, smiling, crossing arms, slumping, erect posture, leaning forward, pulling back, or looking away. While these instincts are helpful and often correct, they are also prone to judgement traps that can lead you (and me) to jump to the wrong conclusion.
Here’s how six common traps can lead us astray:
1. Confirmation trap.
We make judgements about people in those first few seconds by instantly evaluating their clothing, posture, eye contact, facial expression, stance, gait, energy level, initial gestures, tone of voice, etc. Because we don’t have the mental agility to consciously perceive and process all the factors needed to make these calculations, we rely on unconscious estimates, based on past experiences, personal preferences, and gut feelings. Then, right away, confirmation bias comes into play, urging us to look for evidence that confirms our instantaneous decisions, and to discount evidence that is contrary.
2. Affinity trap.
It’s a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings: Any group that people feel part of is an “in-group” and any group that excludes them an “out-group.” We think differently about members in each group and evaluate them differently: We are more likely to favor someone who comes from the same background or shares similar interests and more likely to assume their of display of engaging body language is genuine, not faked.
3. Appropriate behavior trap.
We tend to make judgments about someone’s nonverbal behavior based on our idea of appropriate body language. This trap can be especially detrimental when dealing with international business partners or communicating with cross-cultural team members. In these situations, it’s best to remember that “appropriate” nonverbal signals including eye contact, emblematic hand gestures, touch, physical distance between business colleagues, volume and tone of voice can vary dramatically. What is expected and proper in some cultures is highly inappropriate, even offensive, in others.
4. Book cover trap.
It’s said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but the publishing industry bets heavily that we all do. And there is a correlation when we judge people by their appearance. Children automatically assign favorable traits to good-looking people. As adults, even if we believe otherwise, we tend to believe attractive people are more likeable, competent, and honest than unattractive people – so we pay more attention to their positive body language and may overlook or disregard negative signals.
5. Confidence/competence trap.
Power, status, and confidence are non-verbally displayed in height and space, and the ability to project authority is an obvious communication strength. But there is an almost universal trap we fall into when we equate someone’s ability to display confidence with their actual competence. When we do so, we can give too much credence to contributions from the confident while overlooking the value of those who appear less assured.
6. Mind reading trap.
An easy trap to fall into is to “mind read,” thinking we can accurately predict the motive behind a particular gesture or facial expression. Because our brains are always on alert for signs of danger, this trap is most prevalent when we see someone’s negative expression and believe it’s a personal reaction to us.
In a previous Forbes piece, I interviewed John Sudol, an acting coach and author, who had this this to say about the mind reading trap: In my own life I’ve adopted the mantra “What’s on their face is not about me!” These words have saved me numerous of times when speaking in large rooms looking out and seeing facial billboards flashing judgment, criticism, boredom, doubt, suspicion. Most often, and ironically, those are the very same people who will approach, contact or email me after the lecture thanking me for my work and their favorable experience in the audience that day! Again, “what’s on their face is not about me!”
Avoiding these traps begins with becoming aware they exist.
• The first step is to recognize that these unconscious judgements are taking place. The minute we take an unconscious process and bring it into awareness, it begins to lose its power.
• Once we realize how these traps can influence our evaluations of others, we need to pause. The act of pausing gives us time to check some of our assumptions to see how we might have jumped to the wrong conclusion.