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First Impressions

By Sue Paul, OTR/L, COO

When I first moved to the area over 20 years ago, I asked around for recommendations for a hair salon.  My subsequent experience with “Linda the Hairdresser” has remained one of the most memorable hair appointments I have ever had.  After coloring and cutting my hair, Linda tried to scrub off the dark stain of hair color from the skin bordering my hairline.  After several minutes of rough and painful scouring, Linda decided to try a technique she’d only heard about in hairdressing circles.  As she lectured me about the absorbing effects of cigarette ashes, something about the carbon in the residue, she walked to the waiting area and retrieved a lipstick-stained cigarette butt from an astray. I remember physically recoiling from her when she raised it toward my face.  She grasped my head and held it still like I was a disobedient toddler.  I grimaced as she rubbed the butt of that cigarette back and forth across my forehead.  Ashes and tobacco sprinkled into my eyes and the stench of old cigarettes left an indelible mark on my nasal passages.  Once the cigarette butt was reduced to nothing more than a filtered nub, she giggled and said, “Ha, well that didn’t work.”  I will never forget Linda and her grossly (and grossly) misguided professionalism.  I don’t remember the color of my hair or the quality of the haircut from that experience, but I will always remember Linda for all the wrong reasons.

I think most of us who would like to be remembered by others as someone who had a positive impact on the world.  We’d like to be known for all of the positive, joyful, kind, and compassionate qualities that we easily share on our best days. Sometimes we need to be more intentional about our interactions with others in the world, and do our best to guard against the simplest acts of carelessness that make our impression on others negative for all the wrong reasons.

There was the oral surgeon who approached me from over my head, goggled and masked, and started in on a root canal with never so much as a “hello”.  There was the furniture deliveryman who left his dusty bootprints all over my dark hardwood floors.  I have experienced the powerful innuendo of an irritated eyeroll, or a flared pair of nostrils- enough to blow up a bridge of trust if ever one existed.

A good impression goes beyond an act of kindness or a friendly disposition.  Linda was nice, but she treated me like a lab experiment with little regard for my dignity.  The oral surgeon treated me like no more than a slab of concrete that needed jackhammering.  I have had interactions and experiences with people who were never inherently evil or malicious.  They just failed to acknowledge my perspective on our shared moment in time.

A good impression need not be flawless or pretentious.  It need only be sincere.  It needs to bridge the expanse that connects two strangers to a common purpose.  Trust is built on good communication and a clear understanding of the roles of each person in the relationship.  In other words, a great impression is one that leaves the other feeling respected and validated.  It is not that hard to do.

The next time you have an interaction with a patient, family member, or other healthcare provider, put yourself squarely in their shoes and describe what you see.  If your view is spot on, you’ve just made a positive impression.  The ability to recognize and respect another’s perspective is the key to insight, maturity, friendship, and professionalism… and those qualities are worth being remembered for.

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