What Is Behaviour Mirroring and When Should You Use It?

What Is Behaviour Mirroring and When Should You Use It?
Photo: Zivica Kerkez, Shutterstock

The next time you’re deep in conversation with someone, whether it be a platonic, romantic, or business interaction, notice: Are you sitting or standing in similar positions? Are your voices speaking at the same volume? Are your arms or hands doing the same thing?

If so, one of you is likely (consciously or unconsciously) engaging in the behaviour known as mirroring. Also referred to as “the chameleon effect,” this psychological technique is used both tactically, by professional networkers and salespeople, and unwittingly by everyone else, to form strong connections and engender a greater sense of trust between people.

What is mirroring?

Scientifically known as “limbic synchrony,” mirroring is the act of imitating another’s body language, speech patterns, facial expressions, and sometimes even their physical appearance in an effort to establish rapport, gain trust, and foster deeper connection. While it can be employed purposely, in professions that require sales, negotiation, and gaining others’ trust, such as therapy or police investigation, it’s often done unintentionally, as an evolutionary byproduct of our need for belonging. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery (and it can, so long it doesn’t venture into creepy, Fatal Attraction territory, make the people you’re imitating like you more.)

In practice, mirroring can take many forms. In couples’ therapy, partners may be encouraged to sit facing one another, express their feelings using “I statements,” and repeat verbatim what their partner said (only changing the personal pronouns). This method of exact language mirroring serves to reflect the others’ feelings until they feel sufficiently heard and understood. (Works great on toddlers, too.) It also, most importantly, forces each partner to truly listen to what the other is saying, rather than planning their rebuttal the entire time the other person is talking.

In platonic or business interactions, mirroring can look like mimicking the body language, speech, and facial expressions of the other person. If they sit back, you sit back; if they use sophisticated vocabulary, you tap into your SAT word bank, if they start talking louder or more softly, you moderate your voice to follow suit. At this point you may be thinking, “That sounds weird and like it could totally backfire.” And you’d be right. But first, the benefits.

Does mirroring work?

According to Martha Lauber, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago, mirroring is the best way to resolve an argument. Not only does it force you to listen, rather than planning your counterargument, “Everyone thinks the other person is the problem. Mirroring helps you to understand you’re only seeing half of the picture.”

As reported by the Wall Street Journal,

“Researchers using brain-imaging technology in new ways have recently discovered that these shared behaviours go beyond simple mimicry. Scientists using functional MRIs to study listeners and speakers have found that they are ‘dynamically coupled,’ with speakers’ and listeners’ brains reacting and adapting to signals from each other, says a 2016 study co-written by Uri Hasson, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University. Dr. Hasson likens the connection to a kind of wireless bonding of brains.”

The WSJ goes on to note that in any social environment where collaboration is more helpful than hostility (which is most of them), “this kind of alignment fosters closeness and trust.”

Mirroring do’s and don’ts

Mirroring is most effective when it’s done in a subtle, unobtrusive manner, with the intention of generating empathy or fostering genuine connection. While many people won’t realise it’s happening, others will, and may resent the tactic if employed too brazenly.

None of this will work without a base level of genuine engagement. So, rather than copying everything someone else does, which will be both obvious and annoying, aim for a more subtle approach that builds upon an initial rapport. Focus first on establishing connection through traditional nonverbal cues like eye contact, smiling, facing the person directly, and avoiding the cardinal sin of looking at your phone.

Once that foundation has been established, notice which of their speaking patterns, accents, word choices, expressions, hand gestures, and postures come naturally to you and recreate those on your side of the figurative table. Don’t speak in a faux-British accent, or sit in an awkward way that feels forced. Focus on small things things like: Altering your speaking pace or volume, crossing or uncrossing your legs, and matching their expression of happiness or surprise (which, if you’re a good conversationalist, you likely already do).

Don’t mirror when emotions are high. When the anger is flowing freely is not the time to mimic the other person’s tone and expressions. When it comes to problem-solving, wait until tempers have cooled to employ mirroring.

The key to effective mirroring, is to not be so obvious and deliberate in your approach that it feels stalkery, desperate, or makes the other person feel manipulated. But when employed with subtlety, it can be a powerful way to foster “brain-to-brain coupling,” cooperation, empathy, and trust.

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