Disarm: The Art of First Impressions

Talisha Lawson
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: July 22, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161515

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, appreciative advising, disarm, first impression

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

There is an old adage that states, “You never get a second chance at a first impression.” The source of this phrase is unclear, although poet Oscar Wilde and author Mark Twain are each rumored to have been the originator. Though not everyone completely agrees with this statement, most agree that first impressions are important. First impressions involve those critical moments when you first meet someone. Some would argue that these encounters could either break or make a relationship. The idea of first impressions receives much attention, as does the impact they have on business, personal, and social interactions. In the advising realm, the Disarm phase of Appreciative Advising focuses on intentionally creating a positive first impression (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the research on first impressions in order to help advisers make positive first impressions and more effectively disarm students. In addition, suggestions in this article will offer advisers a second chance at making a good first impression.

The Disarm Phase of Appreciative Advising

Appreciative Advising is defined as “an intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Bloom, 2008, p. 179). Appreciative Advising is a theoretical model that provides advisers step-by-step suggestions on conducting effective advising sessions. The Appreciative Advising model includes six phases: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom et al., 2008). The focus of this article is the Disarm phase.

Bloom et al. (2008) describe the Disarm phase as “the intentional use of positive, active and attentive listening and questioning strategies to build trust and rapport with students” (p. 11). The Disarm phase of Appreciative Advising is composed of four key features: warm welcome, safe and comfortable environment, appropriate self-disclosure, and appropriate nonverbal behavior (Bloom et al). Appreciative advisers smile during their first encounters with students, shake their hands, maintain good eye contact, present an open stance, and use the student's name throughout the conversation. Bloom et al. advocate that the first encounter take place in a comfortable and safe environment for the student. Meeting in a safe environment helps students feel comfortable enough to share personal stories with the adviser. Advisers can create a comfortable setting by keeping their office spaces clean and decorating them in a personal manner. To start forming relationships, advisers should disclose some information about themselves during initial encounters with advisees. Another thing that Appreciative Advisers do to disarm their students is observe their nonverbal behaviors, including tone of voice, posture, eye contact, and arm position (crossed or uncrossed).

Research and Tips for Making Good First Impressions

This section shares research and tips from business and education literature that expound on ways advisers can effectively disarm students. Willis and Todorov (2006) found that people make inferences about a stranger's face after being exposed to it for a mere 100 milliseconds. This concept provides evidence that advisers may only have a matter of seconds to make a positive first impression. Buchert, Laws, Apperson, and Bregman (2008) researched first impressions of classroom instructors versus their reputations. Results showed that students considered the first impressions they formed during the first two weeks of class as more important and reliable than the professor's prior reputation. Therefore, advisers should consider each new encounter with a student as a clean slate and use each meeting as an opportunity to build a positive relationship. Even if an adviser's reputation is positive, the adviser needs to earn the trust of each student.

There is a familiar saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When students interact with an adviser for the first time, they paint a mental picture of who the adviser is. Lampton (2009) advises individuals to be aware of how they look physically and remember to enunciate, alter pitch, and speak clearly. Juden and Thompson (n.d.) offer the following tips for making a positive first impression: be on time, present yourself appropriately, offer a winning smile, be open and confident, be positive, and be courteous and attentive. Lampton offers other tips for making a strong first impression during business and social interactions. First he instructs his clients to be other-centered and make people they are meeting for the first time feel they are the center of the conversation. Advisers should follow this advice by making sure their cell phones are turned off, their computers do not distract either the adviser or the advisee, and the meeting place is comfortable for the advisee. Secondly, Lampton suggests demonstrating good listening skills by maintaining eye contact and using affirming listening cues such as “uh hmm” or “go on.”

Lampton (2009) also advises individuals to be careful if using humor during initial meetings, since they have not yet developed trusting relationships. Lampton reiterates the importance of Bloom et al.'s point about encouraging advisers to use their advisees' names early in the interaction as well as throughout the remaining conversation (Bloom et al., 2008). Lastly, Lampton suggests that advisers give up the need to be right in the first interaction. Advisees may come into the office thinking they have all the answers. At the beginning of the appointment, advisers should give up the need to be right and instead listen carefully while students talk. There will be plenty of time later to chime in after initial rapport is established.

Kanniston (2007) also offers four suggestions on how to make a good first impression in a business setting. The first is to do some research on the person beforehand. Advisers should look over a student's file to become familiar with as much information about the student as possible. Secondly, Kanniston advocates ensuring that the message the adviser delivers is powerful, consistent, and memorable. The adviser must demonstrate that he/she is a valuable resource with access to information the student needs. Third, Kanniston advocates figuring out ahead of time what outcomes are desired. Advisers should work to establish learning outcomes for advising sessions that allow the adviser to evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting. Lastly, Kanniston encourages people to anticipate obstacles. Advisers need to remember that not all students will do exactly what the adviser hopes they will do. It is important not to take this personally and to ensure that students learn how to take personal responsibility for their actions.

What if the Adviser Fails to Make a Positive First Impression?

Everyone has bad days and nobody is going to make a great first impression with every single student. What happens, therefore, if the adviser makes a negative first impression? If the first impression is a negative one, the student may not feel comfortable opening up to the adviser about personal issues and may not opt to come back. However, there is hope. In this situation, Rondberg (1989) advises using the second impression as a second chance to make a good impression. Author Mark Sincevich (2007) recommends that people intentionally reach out to meet with an individual again when trying to make the second impression a positive one. Then he suggests asking the person thoughtful questions, listening without judgment, presenting a unified front by knowing your personal beliefs and passions, and, finally, being patient because it can take time to change an initial first impression (Sincevich). Advisers who do not make the best first impressions can use all of these tips to make their next encounters with advisees positive ones. The key component is to persevere in trying to establish a positive relationship with the student.


Maybe Will Kintish (2008) put it best when he said, “People buy people before they buy the product or service” (¶ 6). Even though he was referring to a business setting, it applies to advisers as well. Advisers must first sell themselves as credible individuals to their students before they try to share information. To help his clients sell themselves, Kintish offers the following acronym: SHINE. When you meet people you should Smile, give a Handshake, give good “I” (eye) contact, know their Names, and be Enthusiastic. If advisers remember to SHINE and follow the concepts of the Disarm stage, their first impressions will establish a positive foundation of trust that will set students up for success.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bloom, J. L. (2008). Moving on from college. In V. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd edition) (pp. 178–188). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Buchert, S., Laws, E. L., Apperson, J. M., & Bregman, N. J. (2008, November). First impressions and professor reputation: Influence on student evaluations of instruction. Social Psychology of Education, 11(4), 397–408. doi: 10.1007/s11218-008-9055-1

Juden, S., & Thompson, M. (n.d.). Making a great first impression. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/FirstImpressions.htm

Kanniston, M. (2007). How to make a good first impression. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.ere.net/2007/09/18/how-to-make-a-good-first-impression/

Kintish, W. (2008, December 12). We don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.ducttapemarketing.com/article/articles/879/1/We-dont-get-a-second-chance-to-make-a-first-impression/Page1.html

Lampton, B. (n.d.). How to make a strong first impression: Seven tips that really work! Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.chartcourse.com/articlegoodimpression_lampton.html

Rondberg, C. (1989, August). No second chance to make a first impression. The Chiropractic Journal. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.worldchiropracticalliance.org/tcj/1989/aug/aug1989e.htm

Sincevich, M. (2007, January). A second chance for a first impression. The Leadership Lens Newsletter. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from http://www.staashpress.com/newsletter38.html

Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006, July). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face [Electronic version]. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598.

About the Author(s)

Talisha Lawson is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at lawsont@mailbox.sc.edu.