Have you noticed how you automatically wrinkle up your face when you see a friend eating (or drinking) something they clearly find disgusting? Or you’re deep in conversation with someone and suddenly realise you’re both leaning forward and propping an elbow on the table? Or you suddenly parrot the other person’s accent or soft speech?
You might have been aware that copying another’s body language and repeating their words or behaviours can help form and strengthen relationships. (Recruitment agents especially like to advise mirroring in an interview situation).
Research shows that mirroring a conversation partner’s gestures, expressions, posture, vocal pitch or tone is a common experience. It consists of a wide-ranging spectrum of verbal or non-verbal communication, including vocal pitch and tone, dress, posture, eye contact, distance and gestures.
For example, if you mirror your date, it’ll make you seem more attractive – like crossing your legs the same way, or holding your coffee cup the same way. Also, if you mirror your customers when you’re in a sales or service position, you’ll not only be able to build a relationship, but it’ll help you sell more and rate higher on customer-satisfaction surveys.
How does mirroring work?
Well, there’s a scientific explanation for it: brain cells called mirror neurons – one of the most significant discoveries of recent times, especially for anyone interested in body language. Basically, these specialised neurons activate or ‘fire’ when you see things happening to other people that you can map on to your own experience: they get a paper cut; you wince and feel their pain. In other words, mirror neurons give us the gift of physical and sensory empathy.
Most people are not aware that they’re mirroring. Mirror neurons not only simulate actions, they also reflect intentions and feelings. As such, they play a key role in our ability to socialise and empathise with others. Babies do it even before birth; their heartbeats and body functions take on a rhythm that matches those of their mothers. As adults, we use it to create a connection, build rapport and in turn, develop relationships.
So how can you mirror someone effectively?
Mirroring typically works best when it is unconscious. If you purposely try to copy everything someone does without being truly engaged it’s going to be awkward; others are likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation.
Doing it consciously requires some subtle skills:
- Connect. Build a connection first; make listening and understanding the other person your priority.
- Observe. Start by observing a person’s body posture (for instance nodding three times and tilting your head as you listen).
- Mirror. Subtly let your body reflect his position (if his arms are crossed, then slowly begin to cross your arms. If he leans back, you do the same). Don’t mimic every action, and allow a few seconds between the other person’s movement and your own!
- Listen. Try to match the other person’s vocal tone and pace.
A brilliant sales tool
The very process of mirroring will help you keep your focus where it should be – on the other person.
In a 2011 French study retail salespeople who were told to mimic the nonverbal and verbal behaviour of 129 customers sold more products and left customers with a more positive opinion of the store. In another study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 62 students were assigned to negotiate with other students. Those who mirrored others’ posture and speech reached a settlement 67% of the time, while those who didn’t reached a settlement 12.5% of the time.
You’ll know you’ve developed mutual rapport if the other person begins to mirror you in return. Change your arm position or nod your head and see if your prospect matches your movement. In a sales presentation this would be a signal of trust and rapport. But if your prospect mismatched, you should consider the possibility that the sale isn’t in the bag yet!
Now you understand how and why mirroring works, you can apply it to all aspects of your interaction with someone. Adopting the same gestures, posture or tone can enhance bonding and help with networking or negotiating, but be subtle about it. Of course, once you've "connected" with someone, mirroring doesn't mean you have to continue following them. Once you're both "in sync," you'll find yourself leading as often as you're following.
Gilan Gork is a Mentalist, Corporate Speaker, Trainer and Entertainer, and Author of the Amazon.com best seller, 'Persuasion Games'. He works with businesses of all sizes either by adding value to their events as an MC or Entertainer, or training them on influence and persuasion to help them achieve their goals faster.
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