Research on non-verbal communication has found that mirroring a person’s words and body language increases rapport dramatically. This finding confirms the results of previous research, especially in the field of social psychology: copying the words and gestures of the person you are meeting will increase goodwill between you.
Mirroring is behavior that copies someone else during communication with them – in displaying similar postures, gestures, or tone of voice. It may include imitating gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, pace of delivery, accent, attitude, choice of words, metaphors, or other features apparent in an interpersonal exchange.
Mirroring happens very naturally when people are speaking. A listener will typically smile or frown or nod their head along with the speaker. If one person uses sports imagery the other person is likely to do the same. People who have lost most of an accent over time when they have moved away from their home town, will quite often find they are speaking more heavily in that accent when they chat with someone from home.
Copying the behavior of others is a technique learnt from an earliest age. Infants and young children learn words and gestures by copying adults, who respond delightedly to that kind of behavior. I have observed this myself, and most parents would testify to this.
Mirroring is a little like a communication dance. While having normal conversation, two people match each other as if in a dance, naturally adjusting their body language and words.
You can learn mirroring behavior
The outcome is that if you display much the same expression or movements the person does, they will generally be much more friendly.
The mirroring technique is learnt by good salespersons. Many find it becomes automatic after a while; they are not even conscious of doing it.
Observe the behavior of people in meetings with you. If they naturally mirror the sort of body language that you display, then you know that they are generally comfortable with you.
However, if someone mirrors you too quickly and too well, be on your guard. They may be doing it because they have read about doing this, such as in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) or similar, or are trying to build a relationship insincerely. If someone is genuinely using natural mirroring then you probably won’t realize it is happening.
Try doing it yourself with people you engage with. But leave a reasonable time delay so that your response isn’t too obvious. Wait up to 10 seconds before imitating their changes in body language, posture etc.
Why does mirroring work?
Neuroscientists have found that some of the brain regions that are activated when a person feels pain also respond when that person imagines someone else feeling the same pain. They believe a similar process occurs when someone is pleased at the good fortune of a friend or enjoys their company.
Match the behavior of others
Matching the behavior of others creates feelings of liking and strengthens bonds between two people, as reported in the 2008 book, Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by social psychologists Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini. Mirroring the body language and even the actual words of other people in almost any situation brings positive outcomes. For instance, the authors describe on page 134 of the book the way that Professor Rick van Baaren tested the idea that food servers who literally repeat their customers’ words after receiving their order will increase the size of their tip. At one restaurant, the tip sizes increased by an average of 70% in this way, when the food servers repeated the orders verbatim back to the customer rather than use standard responses like “Okay!,” or “Coming up!”
Mirroring behavior produces better outcomes for both parties in negotiations, as well as in meetings with a team member. And if you work in sales and customer service settings, you can create greater rapport with customers by repeating their verbalizations back to them, regardless of whether those verbalizations are in the form of questions, complaints or even orders, according to the above book by Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini.
Journalist Benedict Carey, in his article, “You remind me of me,” published in The New York Times on 12 February 2008, reported on experiments demonstrating the success of mirroring. In one experiment, participants were asked to give their opinion about a series of advertisements shown to them. A researcher copied half the participants as they spoke, mirroring their posture and the position of their arms and legs. Shortly after, the researcher ‘accidentally’ dropped several pens on the floor. The participants who had been mimicked were 2-3 times more likely to pick up the pens than those who weren’t mimicked.
The same article reported on behavior exhibited in an experiment conducted at Duke University. Students were asked to try a new sports drink and then answer some questions. The interviewer in each case mirrored the posture and movements of half the participants, with a 1-2 second delay.
None of the participants who had been copied realized that mirroring had taken place. At the end of the interview they were significantly more likely than the others to try the drink, to say they would buy it and to predict the drink’s success in the marketplace.
Likewise, Wall Street Journal reporter Sue Shellenbarger wrote about the same subject in her article, “Use Mirroring to Connect With Others,” published on 20 September 2016.
Imitation is more than the sincerest form of flattery
Mirroring shows that imitation is more than the sincerest form of flattery – it is a powerful way to establish and strengthen rapport. But it needs to done sincerely. If you fake warm feelings toward someone by mirroring, they are likely to realize the dissonance at some point.
In future, try to remember mirroring with the people you deal with – your boss, your spouse or partner, your friends and your work colleagues. Try to gauge whether extra rapport develops between you. Do it often enough and it will become automatic – and people will like you better, creating stronger interpersonal relationships.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.