Awkward Or Weak First Impression? Relax!

Are you an Employment or Job Coach? At some point you’ve likely said to those you’re supporting, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” If you’re in the regular practice of saying this to those you help, please stop. You’re unknowingly doing more harm than good; much more harm. I grant your intentions are nothing but well-intended, but your words have the potential to have dire consequences; you’re setting those you work with up to fail.

I used to buy in to the extreme importance of making an excellent first impression myself, whether it was at a job interview or starting a new job with a lot of people to meet and get to know. Like you, my intentions were always good. So I’d pass along the typical advice for making a good impression. Have a firm but not overpowering handshake, make direct eye contact, smile, be aware of your body language, etc. Like I’ve said, all well-intended and pretty standard advice.

Those I work with confess to being nervous when I’m coaching them for some upcoming meeting. Typically it’s a job interview or meeting someone who they believe might be in a position to advance their employment possibilities. They may be quite comfortable and self-assured in many situations, but as the butterflies in their stomachs begin to take flight seconds before and into a first meeting, so too in many cases does their growing anxiety. And in 2019, a LOT of people have anxiety, so it’s incumbent on us to respond to this.

All it takes is a slight stumble in that first meeting; a pregnant pause in replying to a question they’ve been asked, sweating excessively, arriving 2 minutes later than planned for, incorrectly pronouncing the name of the interviewer and feeling an overcoming urge to apologize; it’s then that it hits them. They suddenly remember the wise advice you gave them as you sent them off brimming with confidence; “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So what are they now thinking? “Ah great! What’s the point of even continuing then? I’ve already blown it! I might as well just apologize for wasting their time and try better somewhere else.”

The thing is, you aren’t there to help ground them, tell them they can re-group and still save the interview. If you were a fly on the wall and you had the power to freeze time, you could stop the moment you picked up on their facial expression that they are in distress and you could coach them through this momentary attack of low self-confidence, then unfreeze time and they’d perform better. But you lack these special powers and you’re not there. You can’t see what those you help actually look like, you can’t observe first-hand their performance, and so all you have to go on when you assess how things went and how to improve is their own recollection of events. And, surprisingly, this person you’re helping who was actually there, may be not all that aware of how things went wrong and how they looked, because their mind was on performing well.

Take heart though. I’m offering up something I feel is a better message to send that they may find far more helpful. It’s the last impression rather than the first, that is the most significant. The way I see and understand things now is that the first impression covers the first 30 seconds or so of an encounter. A face-to-face meeting or interview may go anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and so there’s all that time beyond the first 30 seconds to either confirm or change that first impression.

Now I’m not suggesting we dismiss the value of first impressions. No, I still extol the importance of making as good a first impression as possible. However, it’s the last impression people remember more. You know the saying, “What have you done for me lately”? It means that although you may have performed well in the past (possibly an early or first impression), it’s recent performance that matters more at this moment, (the lasting impression).

This advice gives a person reason to hope when things don’t get off to a perfect start. There’s lots of time to ‘save’ a first meeting. In fact, actually saying, “Gee I’m sorry, let me start again” may be the reboot someone needs to launch an answer with confidence instead of bumbling along and fretting over a miscue. If the whole point of a job interview is to market oneself to the needs of an employer, you unknowingly put a massive amount of pressure on those you support when you send the message that those first 30 seconds will make or break the opportunity.

So instead of rehearsing some elevator pitch to the extreme, what will they say to leave a lasting, positive impression? Based on what they heard as they listened, what opportunity can they pick up on and what will they say that shows enthusiasm for wanting to be a part of the solution?

First impressions are important but the last impression is more important as the final impression is entire summation of the time together. If it started well, excellent; keep it going. However if it started awkwardly, relax, breathe deeply and concentrate on the remaining time together rather than worrying about how things started, which is beyond your control.


Extreme Anxiety And Meeting People

Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, content in your role at work or looking to make a change, you’ll find that having positive, working relationships with others can open opportunities which you’d otherwise miss. For many of us, establishing relationships with others is easily done, as is maintaining and growing those relationships.

On the other hand, there are a great many for whom the idea of striking up a relationship with someone they don’t know is stressful. They’re fraught with anxiety about what to say, how to get started, wondering what to talk about and how to keep a conversation going, knowing when and how to end it and move to another etc. Just thinking about talking, communicating, listening, smiling, interacting and – ah, it’s just so exhausting!

Whoa…let’s take a few deep breaths, relax and start slow. The thing about communicating with others is that it seems incredibly simple when we look around us and see people engaged in conversations. It is after all, just talking, listening to the other person, responding, listening again; an exchange of both hearing what is being said and responding. It all seems so effortless and easy.

If you wonder why some find it so hard to do, think back to a time in your life when you were trying to get up the courage to speak to someone you had some strong feelings for. Perhaps you wanted to ask them out on a date, find out if they felt the same way about you that you felt about them. Just asking them straight out however – while the most obvious way to get the information you’re looking for, was not how you went about it. You worked up the courage to approach them and made some small talk, dancing all around what you really wanted until the time seemed right to bring up the topic of a date, grabbing a beverage etc. Remember that anxiety? Remember the angst of wondering why talking to THIS person seemed so much more effort even though your motivation was high?

Well, now imagine how intense and on edge a person might feel if they experienced the same level of anxiety at the prospect of starting a conversation with just about everyone they come into contact with. Feeling such pressure and stress with respect to engaging in conversations with people throughout your day would be exhausting. And these are what many of us might consider every day commonplace conversations we’re talking about here. Now, if we throw in the odd conversation where there’s more on the line, such as a job interview, professionally networking, approaching a Receptionist at a company we’d like to work with etc., you can see how that anxiety is ramped up tremendously. What’s hard anyways just got a whole lot tougher.

Like I said, take a moment and breathe deeply. In and out; inhale, exhale. Again.

Okay, so let’s talk – you read, I’ll write. This conversing thing is a skill like any other and some do it better than others. It’s not a fault of yours if it doesn’t come easy. Let’s look at these conversations and how to get started.

First of all, it might be best to practice interacting with others with a short conversation in mind, and one we can walk away from at any point without being too awkward. You don’t want to practice on an important conversation. Let’s even suppose we don’t have a friend to practice with.

Can I suggest you start with a quick conversation – just for practice – and we then build on our growing confidence over time to longer conversations. One possible place to start is a convenience store. You can look through the window and pick a time when the person there is by themselves. Where you’d normally go in, get your item, pay for it and leave fast, this time your objective is to actually say something. It will be brief, it will be over fast and you can leave, get outside, breath and recover.

Okay, so picture the interaction before you enter. Not the way it’s gone before but like this. You walk in, get what you want and approach the counter. Place your item on the counter and say, “Hi”. As an employee they might ask you if you want a lottery ticket or if you found everything you wanted; every store is similar but different. Think about what they said and say, “No thank you, just this.” If you can, look at them while you say it, give them your money, get your change and leave. Add a goodbye if you want.

This is extremely basic for many people but a anxiety-filled interaction for others. If you can put a series of these short exchanges together with people you don’t know, you are laying a foundation for interacting with others when there is more at stake. Returning to the same employee on different days will help you feel more comfortable too, and you will have days when you things go well and maybe a day or two where you feel you haven’t made progress. That’s to be expected when trying to overcome a challenge.

You may want to try other brief encounters such as saying good morning to a Bus Driver, wishing a Bank Teller a nice day or just looking at someone you pass on the street in the eyes without saying a word. Small steps.

Eventually, You HAVE To Talk To People

Typically you’ll find I go out of my way to help people cut their anxieties when it comes to the job search process. The title of today’s blog however, has likely raised the stress meter for a few people who struggle with holding conversations.

Yes, there are a lot of people who have difficulty interacting with others; which ramps up even higher than normal when the conversation is expected to be a lengthy one and about them personally. “I don’t like talking about myself”, is a common opening statement I hear often with people who find the interviews and conversations associated with looking for work to be so intimidating.

Now some are great at texting and email. Here at a keyboard, they are more at ease communicating. If they had their way, they’d apply for jobs and be hired based on the qualifications and skills highlighted in their resumes without having to go through the in-person interview.  While some of these types are looking for jobs where they have extremely little interaction with other employees and the public, there are others who will do well once they get hired, become familiar with their new settings and co-workers, and only then do they communicate easier.

Can you feel empathy for such people? I mean, it’s hard to fully grasp what it must be like to have such an acute anxiety about talking to others. Most people I know find job interviews stressful, but job interviews aren’t something we go through every single day of our lives. Face-to-face conversations on the other hand, well, most of us have these many time a day, each and every day. Constantly being in a state of anxiety and heightened stress has to be taxing on both the mind and the body.

Every now and then I’ll hear from someone who was so debilitated on a given day with the fear of being in a conversation that they skipped their job interview altogether. Even though they both want a job and need the income, the barrier of talking to someone they don’t know for 45 minutes to an hour where they are expected to do a lot of the talking just became greater than the desired outcome; a job offer.

It’s not unheard of for some of these people to become physically ill and throw up before job interviews. Their stomachs are churn, their skin becomes tingly and they sweat heavily. The palms get clammy and simple things like eye contact and saying, “Hello” become major challenges.

There is no quick fix I could pass on here in a blog. However, there are some ideas and strategies that tend to help which I can recommend. For starters it can help to look at a job and deconstruct the interaction you’ll have with others. For example, you might balk at the idea of being a Cashier. All those people lining up to interact with you all day long! However, when you break things down, much of your conversation with any one of them will likely be a brief greeting, asking if they want a bag for their purchases, and telling them the total due. Many customers aren’t going to expect or really want much more than that. So while you might be meeting people all day, you’ll only have short, scripted conversations with any one of them.

Looking at a factory job or on an assembly line, your interactions are likely to be restricted to those on your immediate team and perhaps the Security Guard who lets you in and says goodbye to you on your way out. Focus on your work and you might find you fit in rather well, even though there are people around you who are busy doing their jobs.

It can also help sometimes to clue others in to your anxiety. Telling an interviewer that you’ve come to realize that your best work is done independently, and that you like to keep to yourself doesn’t mean you’ll always get shown the door. There are many jobs where the most desirable employee is one who can focus on their work and go for extended periods without the distraction of conversing with others.

Thinking of the above, it raises the important point of making sure you’re going for the right kind of fit when looking for work. This isn’t true just for those with conversation anxieties, but for everybody. In this case, you may do well in a job where you control your surroundings. Take the Potter working with clay in a workshop, a farmer working in a vast field, a Conservationist working in a forest, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist working in a wetlands.

Just walk down any street these days and you see people with ear buds listening to music or podcasts who in so doing, shut out others around them and send the message that they don’t wish to be disturbed. Technology might be tolerated or even encouraged in some jobs if it helps you do your work better.

Of course, sooner of later you do have to talk to people; we all do. One thing to try is short conversations in small doses, where over time you increase your confidence and reduce your fears. Little things like saying, ”hello” to people you pass on the street instead of silently walking by. It might not sound like much, but it’s a small step.

Social Anxiety Got You Missing Opportunities?

I recently finished up working with a group of 12 individuals, all of whom came out of work and on social assistance. In reviewing their files, through conversations with them and observation, it struck me and not for the first time, how many people are impacted with social anxiety.

Now this particular workshop is one that is only made available to clients if they are referred by myself or my fellow Employment Supports co-workers. What this means is that in order to even get to the point where they’d be considered for admission to this specific workshop, they have to be employment ready. So my criteria is basic computer skills, willing to come for 10 days from 9:00a.m. sharp to 2:30p.m. dressed in business casual clothing, (no jeans and t-shirts). They have to know what kind of work they are after, be open to constructive criticism and feedback, and more than anything else, they have to want to be in attendance and want to work. In short they have to want work more than I want it for them.

So with that kind of criteria, and with the expectations clearly laid out to them weeks before the program begins, you’d think that the people referred, screened and accepted would (for lack of a better term), be the cream of the crop. However, social anxiety isn’t one of the things that up to now I’ve thought about discussing with potential participants. Maybe that responsibility is something I’ll have to own myself in the future. Yes, learning all the time.

Now to some extent, I think everyone if you ask them feels some moments of uncertainty when starting something new. Most of us would call it nervous excitement; the anticipation of beginning something meaningful and wanted, coupled with the questions about who will be there, how you’ll fit in etc. So to that extent, we all have thoughts about the uncertainty, or possibly the anticipation of wanting to see if things turn out the way we imagined or are something different.

So what then is it that causes some people to physically and mentally experience a higher degree of intensity with respect to these feelings; an intensity so rich that they may literally have to withdraw?

In the group I ran, one person didn’t even show up on day one. It took her boyfriend apparently to convince her to show up on day two. As a facilitator, missing day one is extremely annoying quite honestly because so much work goes in to assimilating the participants with one another, going over expectations and ground rules, creating a climate of trust and reassurance. For someone with social anxiety, missing day one can be a disaster therefore, especially if you then on day two you are entering a group already established. This is akin to self-destructive behaviour.

One participant who eventually dropped out altogether exhibited behaviour that made her eventual decision predictable. It started with her stating she took some time to warm up to people, then not voluntarily participating, missing a day due to illness, then a second of illness with an email saying she’d understand if she wasn’t welcomed back. Then sending another email withdrawing even though she’d be told she was welcome to come back. She was obviously wanting the decision to not attend to be made by me, rather than having to take the responsibility for it herself.

What I find sad personally is that so many of the people I interact with who state they have social anxiety are good people, with marketable skills and qualifications, who state they want to work. It would appear that in some cases they are truly incapable of overcoming their anxiety at present; debilitating them to the point where they cannot physically take advantage of opportunities. In other cases I’ve had people eventually tell me that they’ve just got too comfortable not working, but know they have to make a show of looking for work, and therefore use social anxiety as an excuse to quit courses and they put their energy into other things. That is more than unfortunate, it’s deplorable.

So is social anxiety somewhere between full-blown agoraphobia where people can’t leave their homes and simple shyness? I’m no expert and don’t pretend to know. What I do know is that whatever it is, it’s robbing people of the ability to take advantage of many opportunities. It is through socializing, human contact and the discussions that take place that people feel inclusiveness, belonging and a rise in self-esteem and personal confidence as a result.

Social anxiety can lead to isolation, withdrawal, feelings of missing out, and possibly depression as a result. Always good to remember is that other people have issues too, sometimes obvious and self-declared and sometimes hidden, less obvious but every bit as real.

It’s also the case that in joining any new group, all of us have the choice to reveal our barriers immediately and gain support or conceal it as best we can and that can be good too if we can pull it off. After all, people only know what they see and what we tell them.

You have to do what works for you. If you are experiencing social anxiety, having someone tell you to, “just get over it” isn’t helpful. Consider getting counselling if you haven’t already, and take some small, safe risks.


Anxiety Talking And Working With People

The job posting says you’ll be working independently and you need to be self-disciplined because you won’t have regular contact with others. Your lack of interest in or anxiety when working with other people may therefore may attract you to positions with these kinds of statements. However, at some point, you’ll be needing to sit down and chat with an interviewer.

And this is the problem in a nutshell for those people who don’t have good interpersonal skills and prefer to avoid social situations: they don’t have good people skills, and don’t feel comfortable in situations where they have to interact with other people, so they avoid specific training sessions where they could work on those skills. Therefore, the skills don’t get better, the anxiety grows, and when the interview is finally obtained, they are under significant stress and don’t perform well and act extremely nervous and uptight. And the cycle continues.

The answer as difficult as it is to hear is to put yourself in more situations where you do interact with others, but on your own terms to start. Instead of picturing an interview where you feel you can’t control the situation and as a result fare poorly, start with situations of your own making that are short in duration and with less to risk if things don’t go well.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you typically go grocery shopping and don’t talk to anyone until you get to the cashier. Even there, you may not say much and then you’re out of the store and on your way home. Think back to the store, and picture the person behind the meat counter for instance. When they eye you standing there, it’s likely they will offer their help. Instead of saying, “No thanks” and moving away, you could ask him or her how to cook a cut of meat, or how long should the shish-kabobs you’re buying be grilled and at what temperature. Even if you already know that information, it gets a conversation going. And you can scoot away at any point. The butcher is going to remain behind the counter anyhow. If this sounds incredibly stressful, remember you can always hold up in the next aisle and compose yourself.

In the above example, if you are worried ahead of time of having to run into the butcher every time you go back in the future, you could always try this kind of experiment in a grocery store you don’t often go to.

Some readers might be seriously wondering if there really are people out there who have difficulty interacting with other people in simple every day situations. Yes there are, and many of them. You can just imagine therefore how utterly terrifying the job interview process must be for these people who have skills and capabilities but find the job interview such an agonizing terror. And just because you might not find talking to people on a daily basis a stressful situation, you can’t expect others to just, “suck it up and get over it”; advice I often hear one person giving another.

A Psychologist or professional Counsellor might look at past events and identify root causes of such a condition and label it a phobia or a disorder of some kind. But with or without that label attached, the more one isolates themselves from people, the more challenging it becomes to initiate or respond favourably to interaction with others. In its extreme I’ve known agoraphobic people who live quite comfortably in their own residences but who cannot walk beyond their door without extreme anxiety and outright fear.

Recently I heard a fellow talking on the radio but unfortunately missed the introduction and didn’t get the full interview. He was making an observation about the current young generation who because so much of their time is spent on electronic devices, are losing interpersonal communication skills. His point was that at an early age, toddlers and pre-schoolers socialize freely. Then in school they get introduced at an early age to tablets, computers, cell phones, etc. He referenced groups of friends sitting at the same table but none of them talking to each other, but all of them texting to other people or the people at the table. Their communication skills are exceptionally good behind a screen, but poor face-to-face because they lack the practice older generations have typically had.

And it’s true most of the time that sooner or later, no matter how wonderful computers are, you have to get out and meet people if one of your goals is work. If you put off talking to everyone until you absolutely have to, then the stakes are incredibly high for that one interaction to go well: the job interview. If however, you take the approach that you will start with a series of brief conversations with people where less is on the line, you may find that you have some success, and can build on that success.

Unemployment is isolating. You could without intending to do it, cut yourself off from friends, and develop anxiety about being around other people, brought on by feelings of low self-esteem associated with your lack of work. Good advice is to stay connected, meet and speak with others, starting with those you trust most to be sympathetic and well-meaning.

And remember that all those people who seem to find socializing so effortless, have other issues; we all do.

How To Improve On Your Interpersonal Skills

So many job postings these days require a person to have well-developed interpersonal skills because so many jobs involve working with and on behalf of others. Customers want to feel valued, acknowledged and recognized. Others you work with need your involvement, co-operation and open communication in order to move forward with projects, campaigns or to get their own work completed.

Interpersonal skills are no longer optional, but as close to be a mandatory requirement as they’ve ever been. Now if you are fortunate enough to say this is one of your strengths, you can count this among the many transferable skills that can propel you forward in your career to new jobs, promotions and dawning challenges.

However, when interpersonal skills is way down on your list of skills, it can be daunting to know this is an area of weakness and wonder how you go about improving. For if you were lacking in accounting skills or computer skills, you could sign up and take a course to acquire those. However, interpersonal skills can seem more difficult as to many people it appears more internal than an external thing, and how do you change something more innate and part of who you are?

Well of course, there are workshops, classes and courses you can look into that will improve your interpersonal and communications skills. An organization such as Toastmasters for one, is a group where you learn how to speak in public, develop your verbal presentation skills and are supported with others who like you, are there to improve upon what they’ve got.

And while I could give examples of other specific groups or courses that can specifically assist with your interpersonal skills, I’d rather suggest a different approach. But just in case that’s what your after, call any school of higher education, or social service agency in your part of the world, and within a short period of time you’ll get the information you need.

But here in this blog, I’d rather suggest a different approach which I can sum up in two words: get involved. You see it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a knitting class, volunteering at a community fun day, playing poker with some friends or taking a photography night class at a local community centre. When you get involved in anything where others are present, you have the opportunity to talk, listen, comment on, share and speak with others.

The single-most important thing you should remember is that no one who meets you for the first time, has the slightest idea of what shortcomings you have. This is a powerful bit of knowledge that is so critical and can help you improve. You’ve got a choice you see; acknowledge to others that you joined the group to improve on your interpersonal skills as well as learn the camera, or how to knit etc. You can also keep your weak interpersonal skills to yourself and just start slowly until it does become natural, or thirdly you can ‘fake it’ and act assertive and chatty until it becomes second nature.

However, some practical tips and advice might help get the ball rolling if your lost for how to begin. For starters, a smile – even if it feels forced, some eye contact and a clear, “Hello”. Practice when you’re alone and yes it will feel weird if no one is around except your reflection in the mirror. Look at yourself as you extend your hand and say hello, and catch yourself if you say, “This is dumb”. It’s not. It’s Interpersonal Skills 101; the beginning.

If you are out on a walk with the dog and someone is approaching in your direction, don’t look down as they pass, but rather look at them briefly and just say, “Hi”. In other words, it’s like taking those first baby-steps; it feels awkward, unnatural and you’ll think you’ll never get used to it, and then all of a sudden you’ll grow in confidence.

Any opportunity you can get to start a conversation is a chance to grow your skills. I once had a person who lived in an area with many tall office buildings around them, who found it difficult to initiate conversation and therefore had weak interpersonal skills. What I suggested was to go from tower to tower and ride the elevator up and down. Why? People on elevators are only in your presence for a few moments at the longest. If you say hello and a conversation does start, it will be confined to something brief, like the floor you want, the weather and then ‘ding!’ they get off. So we contracted that he’d ride those elevators for three weeks, for an hour and a half each day.

What happened? Well in the beginning, he’d just get on and get off without saying anything. Then he got on and said to another person, “Third floor please”. He’d get off, sweat a little and then calm down and get back on and go up another three or four floors, again saying nothing more than, “Seventh floor please”, but then added a, “Thank you” each time. Eventually it became easier and less stressful to add, “Nice outside today isn’t it?”

Of course if you join a club, or get involved with some group, the advantage is you see the same people and they get to know you. You may find that if you tell others you are working on your interpersonal or communication skills, they will have sympathy for you and draw you in to conversations and activities, and you’ll feel more welcomed and included.