Why is it that when we meet some people we are overwhelmed with a sense of dread or dislike?
Meanwhile, some people trigger feelings of such positivity that we are madly in love and planning our future before we’ve even spoken a word.
One look, and we know how we feel about them. And often we find out later that our instincts were spot on.
What are we picking up on?
The tip of the iceberg
Most of the time, we are aware of things going on in our conscious mind: our thoughts, ideas and worries such as, “Why did they ignore me when I said hello?” However, there is a vast amount of information processing going on in the background.
Our unconscious mind is whirring away taking everything in, constantly assessing our environment for threats to our wellbeing. What we are aware of consciously, is just the tip of the iceberg.
What we are doing when we make an instant judgment about someone’s trustworthiness, is what psychologists call “thin-slicing.” We are taking a tiny wedge of information and making a call, based on all our previous experiences of trustworthy and untrustworthy individuals.
Our unconscious mind can offer up an assessment in milliseconds. The amazing thing is, thin-slicing is incredibly accurate. It is how an art expert can spot a fake Van Gogh on the spot.
But, when we would rather run screaming than shake a stranger’s hand, what is it that our unconscious mind is picking up on?
We are incredibly good at picking up the difference between what is being said and how it is being said.
Someone who you have never met can come up and say, “I like your jacket” and all your alarm bells go off. Why? Because their tone of voice is aggressive or threatening and doesn’t match what they are saying.
Our unconscious mind picks the mismatch up straight away. And, here’s the thing: the tone of their voice is a more accurate reflection of their intentions. They are not actually giving you a compliment. We know this due to the structure of our brain.
Ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro explains in his book “What Every BODY is Saying” that the newer part of our brain, the neocortex, is not only responsible for thought and speech, but is the only part of the brain capable of lying.
Someone can easily say, “I’m telling you the truth,” but the ancient part of their brain, the limbic system, can’t lie. It will send you clear signals that they are uncomfortable with the words they are saying.
You may not consciously be aware of it, but your unconscious mind will notice that they are touching their neck or have broken out in a light sweat while they are reassuring you. These are clear signs that they are nervous or stressed. And your gut says, “I don’t believe you.”
Trusting your instinct
It is crucially important to trust your gut instinct. Not everyone can be trusted. Not everyone has your best interests at heart.
Because you are hardwired to protect yourself, your unconscious mind will always be sending up signals, trying to warn you that there is a mismatch in what someone is saying and how they are saying it, or what their body language is doing.
Unfortunately, many times we override the warnings we are getting from our unconscious mind, and regret it later. While Hollywood movies would have us believe that hate at first sight becomes love later on, the reality is very different.
Don’t accept, “Just give them a chance” or “They’re great when you get to know them.” Don’t rate what they are saying higher than what they are doing. Err on the side of trusting your thin-slicing judgment and invest in people that make you feel happy and comfortable right from the start.
Attracting the love
Which brings us to the question of how we can be the person that makes others feel happy and comfortable? We are attracted to people that we perceive are like us, so to set someone at ease, tune into the other person’s rhythms and body language.
Smile, make eye contact and ask them something about themselves. You can go as far as matching their breathing and mirroring their body language (but be subtle about this — too much is creepy). A light touch just above the elbow can effectively build closeness after you’ve built rapport with someone, but of course, exercise touch with caution.
While we can manipulate the way we interact with others to a certain extent, being upfront and honest and having genuinely good intentions is the failsafe way of being attractive.
Dr. Christine Brown is a psychologist, manager and executive coach.