A known fan of ponderous questions, Malcolm Gladwell takes on the beguiling ways of first impressions in his forthcoming book, Talking to Strangers, slated for release this September. The author observes that many of the world's problems stem from a failure of communication between strangers.

In the book, Gladwell points to multiple examples, including how Bernie Madoff managed to defraud thousands of savvy investors, and how Neville Chamberlain was tricked into believing that Adolf Hitler was trustworthy.

"These problems that we're seeing are not confined to the darkest most problematic areas of our society. They're everywhere," said Gladwell, referring to the potentially tragic consequences of misunderstandings between neighbors, colleagues, and even those who don't already know one another. He was speaking at BookExpo America, a trade show in New York City, held at the Javits Center this week. "We have versions of this kind of breakdown in communication between strangers over and over again."

Indeed, in business ill-informed attitudes about others can elicit real implications. Maybe an approving-sounding client wasn't really convinced to sign on. Or an investor pitch seemed to fall on deaf ears even though said investor smiled, nodded, and asked engaged-sounding questions. Or, maybe a new hire will end up being problematic for one reason or another. 

There's a disconnect, said Gladwell. "I'm trying to understand what it is about the particular dynamic between strangers that is so problematic," he added. "What are the mistakes that we're making that cause these seemingly routine encounters to go awry?" Despite the complexity of these questions, the author offered some advice. 

Here are three ways Gladwell recommends improving first encounters that should resonate with any entrepreneur:

1. Accept your limitations.

It's important to accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers. While you can certainly ask questions in a job interview that allow you to uncover red flags in a candidate, the true qualities of a new employee may only emerge after you've hired them.

2. Be OK with not getting it right.

It's not a bad thing to assume the best of a stranger you just met, even if it means that you learn that individual is untrustworthy down the road. Gladwell notes in his book that to assume the best of another is the trait that has created modern society. It would be nearly impossible to form new partnerships with investors or other businesses if you always assume that they have plans to eventually deceive you.

3. Don't get caught off guard.

You should take advantage of the aspects of a first encounter that are in your control. Make sure to do thorough background research on a job candidate or investor before meeting with them. Ask questions that will help you to verify a stranger's intentions to build trust. Consider how you present yourself in a meeting and think about the information you can share that will demonstrate trustworthiness to a person you just met. And, of course, be prepared for the possibility that you may have misjudged their character in your first encounter.

Published on: May 30, 2019