Listening is one of the best ways to build rapport. You don’t just listen with your ears; you do it with your whole body. Yup, this is another post about body language.

I mentioned last week that mirroring body language could be a whole post in itself, and here it is. Enjoy!


Be Like Obama

In my training and coaching sessions, we spend a lot of time talking about how to listen with your body. Of course, you can show listening with things like eye contact and open postures. In addition to that, I teach a powerful technique that psychologists call mirroring, mimicry or the chameleon effect. This involves subtly matching the person you’re conversing with, which happens naturally when you have good rapport and can actually be used to build it.

When I was searching for images of mirroring body posture for my training slides, pictures of Obama with other politicians popped up all over the place. No matter what you think of his policies, most would agree Barack Obama is one of the most charismatic leaders alive today. He certainly knows how to build rapport through mirroring. Here are just a few examples:

So when reminding my trainees to mirror, I just go back to these images and tell them to “Be like Obama.”


How Does It Work?

Mirroring is especially good at building rapport, because it implicitly communicates “I am like you.”

Mirroring naturally happens in social interactions, especially in positive and collaborative situations. Chartrand and Bargh found that people working together naturally imitate each other, and people with a lot of empathy tended to mirror the most. So if someone has empathy for you and wants to work collaboratively with you, they will naturally have a tendency to copy your movements.

Even more interesting in this same paper is that when they had actors instructed to mirror or not mirror participants in a conversation, the participants who were mirrored rated the interaction as smoother and rated the actor as more likeable. This means that you can make new people like you more by simply mirroring their body language. Imagine how useful this could be for networking, sales, and especially job interviews.

If you want to see mirroring in action, check out this BuzzFeed video. Bet you never thought I would send you to BuzzFeed for professional tips!


Don’t Overdo It

Once people learn the magic behind mirroring, a common mistake they make is over-doing it. This might be stating the obvious, but there are some times when you don’t want to mirror the person you’re speaking to. These include aggressive conversations, situations with complex power dynamics, or any instance where it seems unnatural.

After emphasising the importance of mirroring body language, I often ask trainees to practice with each other in pairs of speakers and listeners. In one session, a pair had a speaker that liked to gesticulate. Wanting to mirror his gestures, the listener was awkwardly waving his hands in the air in silence, trying to exactly copy the speaker.

At best, this kind of extreme mirroring seems a bit absurd; at worst, it looks like the listener is mocking the gestures of speaker. Mirroring has to be subtle, because at some point mirroring becomes mockery – and that’s a quick way to ruin any rapport you’ve built. This is the error that most people make. For this reason, Blake Eastman from The Nonverbal Group says we should avoid unnatural mirroring and merely learn to notice natural mirroring indicator that rapport has been built. This is certainly useful, but there is much more to be gained if we can learn to intentionally mirror others in a subtle, natural way.


Keep It Subtle

So, how do you make it subtle? I have three suggestions for you today.


First, try to imitate more long-term static body language, as opposed to brief dynamic movements. If the speaker itches their nose, it may seem contrived if you, soon after, itch your nose in the exact same place. However, it’s not unnatural at all for two people having a conversation to generally sit in the same way, like Obama and Prince William (right).

Second, allow a bit of time to pass before matching the other person. This makes it appear more natural. If they shift their posture, wait a few seconds and then shift your posture in a similar way. If they gesture when they talk, wait until it’s your turn to talk before you gesture. Mirroring might actually be a bad word for this, because you’re not copying your conversational partner in real time. Perhaps we should have called it “echoing” instead.


Finally, make sure you’re matching body language in a comfortable way that feels natural to you. In the image to the left, Angelina Jolie isn’t mirroring the leg positioning of her interviewer, as that would be quite uncomfortable in her pencil skirt. However, she is similarly sitting back with her hands on her legs and matching his smile. Mirror the aspects of body language that feel most natural to you.


Bottom Line

Mirroring is a very useful tool. Mirroring naturally happens when you have built rapport, so you can use it as an indicator that things are going well. Even more interesting, you can also actively mirror people to implicitly make them like you more.

That said, you have to do it right. Only imitate elements of your conversational partner’s body postures in a way that feels natural and comfortable to you. To make it seem more natural, use a slight delay and focus on matching the longer-term static body language.


If you liked this and want to learn more about this topic, check out Marco Iacoboni’s book, Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. You can also set up a personal coaching session with me, and we can practice together.


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