You’ve likely heard the saying, “you only get one chance to make a first impression”.
Researchers from Princeton confirmed this when they discovered that in one-tenth of a second, you could judge a person’s attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness just from looking at their face. This means that in health care, we have merely seconds in our first encounter with patients before they decide whether we are trustworthy or competent to take care of them. It’s our one chance to make a good first impression.
Why is a positive first impression important? Great first impressions can dictate the overall perception of the quality of the patient experience. The researchers from Princeton found that we tend to filter all of our interactions with a person based on the assumptions we have made right at this first impression. What we do in those first seconds of meeting a new patient has a ripple effect on the rest of our interactions with them. Through a positive first impression, we can establish trust, convey confidence, and build connections. These are the very foundation on which we can build a successful relationship with patients.
Even though there are just a few seconds in our first impression, there are specific things that we can do to make it count.
- Think about your body language. A smile, eye contact, or leaning in to speak with someone can go a long way in making a person feel cared for. In the few seconds that we have to make a first impression, how we use our non-verbal skills is a strong factor in determining a positive first impression. In fact, research from professor Albert Merabian, a foundational researcher of body language, has shown the total impact of our message is 55% non-verbal, 38% vocal (our tone and inflection), and 7% verbal (the words we use), a formula that is often called the 55/38/7 formula.
- Introduce yourself. This seems like an easy thing to forget to do when we are busy tackling the demands of the day, but patients appreciate and notice when we take the time to introduce ourselves, tell them our name, our role, and why we are there with them. These greetings could feel trite or redundant when you’re doing them day in and day out, however, they can truly make a big impact by creating a lasting impression with anyone and everyone you talk to.
- Use positive words and tone. The words we say and the way we say them also help to create a positive first impression. Our tone of voice can come across as informative and supportive or disrespectful and overly assertive. So when we are speaking to patients, we want to be clear, personal, and authentic with our words so that patients know without a doubt that we are here to help. We also want to be kind, patient, and empathetic in our tone when we speak, ensuring that patients know that they will be cared for.
Creating lasting first impressions is a skill that we can learn. It starts with those first few seconds you meet with a patient, and it carries throughout your time with them. In those few seconds, we establish trust and confidence and it transforms our interactions thereafter.
A negative first impression is hard to recover from, so starting with a positive one is critical to establishing a caring, engaged patient-clinician relationship. We have a few short, but powerful seconds in our initial interactions with patients to set the tone for a lasting and positive patient experience.
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Adah is a Content Specialist at Practicing Excellence where she helps our faculty to create content that resonates and inspires other clinicians. She is an occupational therapist, who has worked in the past in the areas of home health, seating/mobility clinic, outpatient neuro and pediatrics, and most recently, special education in the schools. Her love of writing, researching, and learning led to her Master of Education where she specialized in health professional education and worked as a standardized patient educator at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Adah is thrilled to be a part of Practicing Excellence, contributing to the education and empowerment of clinicians to find joy in their work.