In the earliest days of human evolution, we were utterly dependent upon one another for survival. We had to be. We were smaller, weaker, and slower than every major mammalian predator. For us to survive, especially in groups that did not include our direct kin, we had to evolve an ability to emotionally connect with others.
One way we do this is through mirroring, an evolved ability to feel a kinship for anyone performing relatable activities. Case in point: If you smile at a baby and the baby smiles back, you feel an immediate connection.
For the infant, mirroring is a way of bonding with the parents or social group to secure protection and comfort. From your perspective, the experience bridges your language barrier, showing the baby that the two of you can communicate and understand each other.
As this process unfolds, your brain’s gray matter perceives the experience in a positive light. Of course, this happens instinctively, instantaneously, and subconsciously. But because it happens, we can learn to deliberately harness the power of mirroring to develop stronger business relationships.
Mirroring on the Job — and Everywhere Else
My company invited Chris Voss, co-author of the book “Never Split the Difference,” to work with us to improve our sales approaches because the book goes into great detail about using mirroring activities in business to help colleagues and prospective clients open up.
As Voss and co-author Tahl Raz explain, reflecting someone’s voice cadence and style, as well as general body language, subconsciously causes the other person to become more engaged. And here’s the best part: It happens even if the person realizes he or she is being mirrored.
At our office, Voss arranged a simple mirroring exercise that produced unexpectedly positive results. First, we were paired up with a partner, and the partner would say something. We would have to repeat back part of it in a way that left the conversation open-ended, mirroring the other person’s verbiage and tone.
Now, you might expect the other person to clam up, particularly because everyone knew the gist of the exercise. To the contrary, we all felt an irresistible inclination to overshare. Rather than hold back, we gave more information than we originally intended to disclose. As you can imagine, that type of outcome can be quite useful when working with current and would-be clients who are reluctant to fork over key details or objections.
In addition to replicating speech patterns and words, our team worked with Voss on mirroring body language, too. Again, merely adjusting our movements to lean toward or away from someone based on his or her physical stance elicited exciting results.
As psychology professor Albert Mehrabian has noted, body language makes up more than half of our in-person communication. Consequently, reflecting someone subtly can send the message that you are on the same wavelength. It can also avoid problems related to invading personal space because you’re mimicking the person’s preferred posture.
You’ve probably already seen mirroring in action even if you didn’t realize it. Think back to your last networking event. Did you ever see two people talking who ended up taking sips of their drinks at the same time or leaning toward each other at a table? They might not have been mirroring on purpose, but they were absolutely using the technique to make inroads.
Adopting Mirroring Without Overdoing It
In your personal and professional life, you have a handful of seconds to make a first impression. Mirroring allows you to use verbal cues to send off an empathetic, engaged vibe before you ever say a word. However, you need to make sure you’re confident with mirroring before purposely using it to build bridges.
There are several ways to get comfortable mirroring others in any situation. Here are some steps to help you get started — without overdoing it:
1. Practice on a regular basis.
My wife and I mirror each other at home occasionally. She might say something that’s bothering her at the office. I’ll then mirror back her tone and language while reflecting her body language. This allows her to feel comfortable and expand upon her original statement.
You might assume these discussions feel forced and awkward. They don’t. We’re not trying to pressure each other; we’re trying to work as a team to foster understanding. By approaching mirroring as beneficial, we value the experience. After you get more assured in your mirroring abilities, try it in your everyday interactions. Most people won’t notice your efforts but will show appreciation for how interested you are in what they think, feel, and say.
2. Pay attention to others’ voices and physicality.
Now that you know what mirroring is all about, you can begin to pick up on others’ verbal and nonverbal signals. If someone you’re speaking with takes a small step backward, do likewise in a natural way (unless the person is trying to leave, of course, in which case it might seem creepy). If he or she becomes more animated, follow suit. However, stay attuned to any reactions you might get that indicate you’re being too obvious. There’s a fine line between mocking and mirroring. Make moderation your mirroring motto.
As for speaking, be sure to echo the other person’s basic rhythm and speed. For example, folks from the South tend to speak more slowly than people living in Manhattan, and studies show that mismatches in speech patterns can lead to reduced empathy. Adjust your tempo accordingly so you aren’t out of step with the person in front of you or on the other end of the phone.
3. Become a “mirror phenomenon” studier.
The best way to learn how to become a mirroring expert is to analyze it in action, including when you’re in the midst of it. Beyond looking at the way people carry themselves, pay attention to their eyes. Individuals who have no trouble normally making eye contact tend to hold gazes longer if they feel a heightened level of trust. Conversely, they might look away frequently if they’re bored or distressed.
In my first sales role, I noticed one of my clients exhibited off-putting body language whenever we discussed a certain subject, but not others. After noticing him repeat this behavior several times, I pulled him aside and let him know it seemed like he had reservations about the topic at hand, though I didn’t tell him why I suspected his concern. He admitted he was uncomfortable about a specific component of a deal we were discussing. Paying attention to his body language and verbiage and mirroring that back to him allowed us to get to the bottom of the problem. Without mirroring, I could have missed out on a multimillion-dollar deal.
The next time you’re feeling as if it’s too hard to build rapport with prospects, colleagues, or even friends, try mirroring. It can make a huge difference in not only the way you communicate, but also the impact it has on the people you work with and the opportunities that are available to you.