The Art of Building Rapport, Part I: Mirroring & Matching

To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved. – George MacDonald

Have you ever noticed that when best friends get together, they tend to act and even sound alike? It’s often described as ‘chemistry’ or ‘a positive vibe’, but there’s a simple evolutionary mechanism behind the phenomenon.  Behavioral research show that mirroring and matching—copying other people’s body language, mannerisms, and repeating their words— helps build trust and establishes rapport.  Charismatic people who are masterful in the art of developing rapport do this instinctively, but matching and mirroring can be learned and is a skill that you can cultivate, hone, and use over a lifetime to improve relationships in every aspect of your life.

Mirroring and matching are techniques widely used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, an interpersonal communication model created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s.  The idea is that people feel most comfortable around those who are like them – they feel that their point of view is understood. The more someone believes you are like them, the easier it is to develop trust and rapport at the unconscious level.

Mirroring refers to the simultaneous ‘copying’ of the behavior of another person, as if reflecting their movements back to them.  When done with respect and discretion, mirroring creates a positive feeling and responsiveness in you and others.

Matching, on the other hand, can have a built-in ‘time lag’.  For example, if a seated client uncrosses his legs and leans slightly inward while speaking, you should wait for a few seconds and then discretely adopt the same posture.

The most prudent of establishing rapport quickly is to mirror and match the most unconscious elements of a person’s behavior during communication, such as physiology and tonality.  Together, these two elements comprise an estimated 93% of our communication.   Paying attention to just these two elements can make you most like the other person without their being aware that this is occurring – that’s the key to success.

In Part I of The Art of Building Rapport, we will explore some mirroring and matching techniques used to quickly establish rapport and create an atmosphere of trust, safety, and engagement using both verbal and non-verbal communication cues.  Although these techniques can be used for improving virtually any relationship, for this purpose, we’ll refer to the individual being mirrored and matched as a ‘client’.

Matching External Communication Cues

Posture:  Body language often reflects feelings and attitudes.  When you mirror and match a person’s body posture, you actually begin to understand more about him.  Is your client sitting, standing, relaxing or slouching?  Are her legs or arms crossed?  Is she leaning in any particular direction? Are her feet together or apart?  Is she holding anything, such as a pen or cup of coffee?  If your client crosses her legs or places her hands on a table, wait for 4-5 seconds, then match that in the same way.  The same applies to shifting to another position, hand placement, etc.  Observe how your client moves. If he or she moves quickly and you move slowly, your patterns are out of sync.  Speed yourself up just a bit or slow down until you’re both comfortable with one another.

Gestures:  People often use gestures along with posture to give insight on how they categorize their experiences. To gracefully pace and match gestures, observe each in context – does your client gesture with her hands in a particular way, or with a nod or tilt of her head?  Are hand gestures exaggerated and expansive, or protective and restrictive?    Discreetly mirror the gestures of the person you’re listening to—if they lean their head to the left, wait a few seconds and lean to the right.

Facial Expressions:  Humans have 53 facial muscles that contribute to a wide range of possible expressions; each can tell volumes without uttering a word.  Are brows raised or lowered?   Furrowed or smooth?  Is the bridge of the nose wrinkled or smooth?  Is the jaw tense and squared off?  What is the client’s approximate blink rate? In general, the average blink rate is 15 times per minute. Someone feeling anxious or who is lying blinks more often, and a person deep in concentration blinks less often.  By matching your client’s blink rate, you may have greater access their emotional/physiological state.  Admittedly, this takes some time to master and match with discretion, but as the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, it’s worth the effort to consider.

 Matching Language and Vocal Patterns

Tone/Inflection:  Aspects of voice matching (tone, rate, volume, etc.) are most effective when done indirectly.  Subtle adjustments in your normal voice so that it is more like your client’s, but still essential ‘you’ is all that is required.  Your ‘mirrored’ voice should never be radically different from your own.  To significantly alter your voice is distracting and off-putting.  Don’t outright copy tonality.  Can you imagine a man with a tenor voice trying to match a woman’s high-pitched tone?  That would be ridiculous.  He could, however, try raising the pitch of his (natural) voice just a bit to be more in sync with her.

Speech Rate:  If your client speaks slowly and deliberately, the quickest way to break rapport is to speak to them in a rapid-fire manner. Matching the pace of your client creates a sense of alignment and allows you to more easily match her energy level.  Your matching pace should be natural and subtle.  If you’re naturally a slower, more deliberate speaker, you might consider just ‘dialing it up one notch’ to narrow the gap between yourself and a much faster-paced speaker.  I do this often with friends, family and clients from New York State.  Although I lived in New York until I was 28, my pace of speech has slowed considerably over the past 16 years.  However, it quickens when I’m speaking with New Yorkers.  It’s often exhausting – but exhilarating, too!

Sensory Predicates: Most people tend to favor one of four types of sensory-based systems that help us understand our world and experiences; the words we choose describe these experiences.  It’s very helpful to pick up on key words that reveal a person’s underlying favored system, so that you can use those and similar words to build rapport and meaningful connections.  Most people integrate all four systems in their vocabulary, but tend favor one in particular, either innately or from context.  The four systems are:

•   Visual

•   Auditory

•   Kinesthetic/Feeling

•   Auditory-Digital

Visual Predicates include words and phrases such as:  see, look, view, foggy, clear, bright, reveal, focused, short-sighted, paint a picture, an eyeful, picture this, hazy, etc.

Auditory Predicates may include terms and phrases such as:  sound, hear, tell, listen, resonate, clear as a bell, loud-and-clear, tune in/out, on another note, give me your ear, etc.

Kinesthetic/Feeling Predicates include words and phrases such as:  touch, feel, grasp, fuzzy, hard, concrete, sharp as a tack, solid, unfeeling, heated debate, get in touch with, make contact, hand-in-hand, etc.

Auditory Digital Predicates may include word and phrases such as: think, know, learn, process, decide, consider, understand, experience, motivate, learn, figure it out, make sense of, pay attention to, word-for-word, conceive, etc.

How can you use this in mirroring and matching to create rapport?  When we ‘speak the same language’, we have a more solid foundation on which to build trust.  For example, a client may say to you, “I like the look of the contract.  The bottom-line is clear and your plan is focused.”  You might reply with something like, “I’m glad that I was able to paint a clear picture of the project; let’s see how we can work together toward a common vision for the work.”  The underlying system of communication is overwhelmingly visible…. see what I mean?

People integrate these predicates into their sentences, and if you detect them, you can incorporate similar words into your dialog.  The result leads to a stronger connection by communicating in a way that is most familiar and comfortable for your client.

Matching Internal Communication Cues

Energy Level:  Some people are naturally relaxed while others are chronically gregarious and active.   Strive to match energy level.  An effective way to match energy level is to mirror the breathing rate of your client.  This is one of the most difficult aspects to match as it requires you to closely observe the rise and fall of your client’s chest and shoulders, among other cues, while simultaneously maintaining consistent eye contact and engaging in deep listening.  However, once mastered, it’s very effective.

Don’t Mimic… It’s a Gimmick

Mirroring and matching can be very powerful and effective techniques for quickly establishing rapport with a client.  However, do use common sense and discretion.  Don’t outright mimic a person’s every move – that’s counterproductive and disingenuous.  If your client becomes aware that you’re actively using specific techniques to create rapport with them, there’s a good chance that their state of trust and receptivity will be irrevocably eroded.  On a related note, be mindful not to mirror and match negative body language.

We automatically mirror and match people with whom we feel comfortable.  When we practice these techniques with intention and respect, we can enhance our communication with others and achieve greater levels of success in our personal and professional relationships.

If you have doubts as to whether mirroring and matching really work… try it on a few people with whom you’d like to build a more meaningful relationship.  I invite to you share your results with me in the ‘Comments’ section of this post.

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