We carry expectations of value into every conversation we participate in. These expectations may be positive, negative, or neutral, and they absolutely impact the amount of observational effort we exert. They also determine what information we retain and interpret. People react the strongest to what they first observe. We literally look and listen for the very first verbal or nonverbal indication that either confirms or violates our preconceived expectations. 

People react the strongest to what they first observe.

Several very interesting research studies have addressed the question of just how quickly humans make their initial judgments during their conversations. The answer is lightning fast. A research team led by Dr. Phil McAleer at the University of Glasgow found that we are capable of judging someone’s trustworthiness and dominance (among other factors) in as fast as 300–500 milliseconds just by listening to them say the word “hello.” PRECONCEIVED

Another research team from Princeton University led by Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that we are capable of judging someone’s trustworthiness, aggressiveness, and competence in as fast as 100 milliseconds just by looking at their face.9 A third study conducted by Tiffany Ito and Geoffrey Urland from the University of Colorado demonstrated that we are capable of categorizing people, specifically by their gender and race, in 100– 150 milliseconds. PRECONCEIVED

Think about this for a moment. There is a high likelihood that in the first fraction of a second you meet someone you’ve already judged their trustworthiness, competence, and attitude, and categorized them within one of your pre-existing mental categories. Right or wrong, these immediate judgments cast a shadow over our conversations and direct what we observe, how we interpret our observations, and how we respond for the duration of our interactions.  PRECONCEIVED

Admittedly these instantaneous determinations aren’t always bad. They can be game-changing and life-saving realizations when we are in highly competitive or life-threatening situations. Thankfully, most of our conversations don’t fit into either category, although our bodies can trick us into feeling like they do.  PRECONCEIVED

Anytime we feel threatened or vulnerable to a high enough degree, our fight-or-flight response kicks in. When this happens, our rational brain shuts off and our emotional brain takes over with the singular focus of getting us through perceived danger; we lose the ability to see the big picture and think strategically, and we make short-term, tactical decisions to relieve the discomfort we are facing. Fight or flight is not called “stop and think” for a reason. The blood and oxygen that our brains need in order to think clearly rushes away from our brains and down to our extremities. When we are under stress, we go to what we know. We default to communication approaches and action sets we are comfortable with. These approaches can often be defensive, resulting in us communicating in a parental style and treating counterparts like children, and frequently drive us to achieve short-term success at the expense of others. The best way to center ourselves, think strategically, and elevate our observations is to intentionally slow the situation down and take a deep breath.  PRECONCEIVED


Our snap judgments are based on our life history, perceptions, and stereotypes. In their book Blind Spot, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald discuss the fact that stereotypes connect groups with shared attributes.11 They illustrate that any stereotype is partially true and partially false, and that group stereotypes are typically negative.  PRECONCEIVED

These stereotypes assist in instantaneous categorization. According to Banaji and Greenwald, our category-forming capacity is so great that we can envision a complete person when they are described by a set of six unfamiliar dimensions. Once our brains possess that tiny amount of information, we are capable of connecting the rest of the dots, and feeling good about it.  PRECONCEIVED

The categories we place people in are often filed within our perceived in-groups and out-groups. In-groups are groups of people with whom we believe we share important traits. We often perceive our in-groups to be people who look like us, share the same beliefs and interests we do and come from the same places we do. These may include your family, friends, fans of the same sports team or music groups, graduates from the same universities, people from the same city, members of the same church or political group, and teammates. Out-groups are for people who we don’t perceive to share important traits with us and who we perceive to have opposing views or experiences.  PRECONCEIVED

The power of our in-group and out-group perceptions cannot be overstated. Dan Ariely is one of many researchers whose work has demonstrated our increased willingness to listen to, support, defend, and even commit crimes for members of our in-groups.12 The same research illustrates how we often behave in unexpected ways when we interact with people from out-groups. We are far less likely to listen to or support them. When we communicate with members of our in-groups, we often listen to confirm our similarities, whereas when we communicate with members of our outgroups, we often listen for opportunities to validate our disagreements and de-value their ideas, as it would violate our self-image to be in agreement with someone “on the other side.” This self-image violation is why it can be extremely hard to separate messages from messengers. 

About the author

Michael Reddington, an expert forensic interviewer. He’s also the President of InQuasive, Inc., which provides business executives and leaders with the tools they need to improve connections with their stakeholders by activating the truth in all of their business interactions. In his new book, The Disciplined Listening Method:  How a Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation (Per Capita Publishing, March 2022), Reddington details his innovative listening approach for anyone looking to improve their communication and relationship-building skills. 

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