A Deeper Look at Mirroring and Matching

One of the cornerstones of NLP (neuro linguistic programming) and NLP is the process of the establishing rapport or harmony with the subject. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a man, woman or child – rapport has to be established if you want to really connect with the subject and influence him/her to do what you want. Without any rapport, the subject will find it hard to trust you and listen to what you have to say.

Usually, what teachers of NLP and hypnosis do is they teach would-be practitioners mirroring and matching. Mirroring and matching is a classical method of creating rapport.

The theory behind this practice is quite simple: when you match the actions and verbal expressions of another person, you pace him (or set the mood/tone of the interaction) and eventually you will lead him (or guide the subject to where you want the interaction to go).

Mirroring and matching is done covertly with the intention of speeding up rapport between two people. Hypnotists and NLP practitioners usually mirror the subject’s physical gestures, facial expressions, breathing rate, speech rate, etc.

Over time, the subject will begin to match the hypnotist or NLP practitioner and when the two are finally in sync with each other, one can say that a degree of rapport has already been established. This method has worked well for many decades and no decent book on hypnosis or NLP would be complete without a discussion of rapport.

Even the newer books on hypnosis included matching and mirroring because it is an essential skill that must be learned by anyone who wants to speed up rapport and the establishment of social harmony between two or more individuals.  While we do know that this classical method works, it would be beneficial for master influencers to know why this method works.

What makes matching and mirroring so effective in the first place? One study headed by researcher Rick van Baaren focused on the hypothesis that when waiters repeated what customers order word by word, the size of tips will increase significantly.

The hypothesis sounded strange of course, since repeating something verbatim has no real bearing on the enjoyment level of restaurant patrons. But nonetheless, van Baaren proceeded with the study to test his theory that people would appreciate the word-by-word repetition of their orders as opposed to just receiving a nod or a plain “okay”.

Van Baaren also included the responses of restaurant patrons to waiters who did not say a single word at all after the orders have been given. So van Baaren had three distinct groups of waiters to observe during the study.

The first group of waiters was composed of servers who said things like “your order is coming up” and “alright”. The first group of individuals provided the stock response of servers and waiters to customers. They gave a positive acknowledgement but they did not mirror or match restaurant patrons.

The second group of waiters simply left without even nodding or saying anything to the restaurant patrons after receiving the orders. And finally, the third group of servers repeated everything that the patrons said, word by word. They did not say anything else but the exact orders of the patrons.

After the study, van Baaren collated the results and discovered that the third group of waiters (the ones who repeated the order word by word) received up to seventy percent more tips than the two other groups. The waiters in the third group definitely had a really good tip day when van Baaren held his study in the restaurant.

One would wonder – why would repeating customer orders word by word trigger such positive reactions from the restaurant patrons? Social psychology points at the tendency of humans to gravitate toward other humans who share similarities.

Repeating the orders of the restaurant patrons created an instant similarity between the waiters and the ones who ordered; rapport was established instantly and the patrons felt that they were valued customers because the waiters were paying close attention to what they were saying.

When you start matching the expressions, gestures and general behavior of another person, two things happen simultaneously: rapport or harmony is established between you and the other person (he/she starts liking you because you have similarities) and a bond is also formed. This bond can be used by an influencer to persuade the other person to agree with what you are saying.

In another study by Chartrand and Bargh, researchers studied the reactions of subjects who interacted with a research assistant. The research assistant sometimes mirrored the body language of the subject in front of him. The result of the study confirmed what the van Baaren study discovered.

The respondents of the Chartrand and Bargh study who encountered the research assistant who was mirroring their body language stated that they had a smooth interaction throughout.

So while there is no direct link between the mirroring activity and what we may be thinking of another person, the subject’s perception is what truly matters. As influencers we must become preoccupied with how the subject perceives what we are doing. Our own concerns and feelings become irrelevant when we are trying to persuade or influence another person because the whole interaction is hinged on how the subject would be reacting to what you are doing.

Now, does mirroring and matching work during a negotiation? In yet another study headed by researcher William Maddux, the researchers discovered that it can also help an influencer get a better result during an actual negotiation.

The respondents of Maddux’s study were instructed to subtly mimic the behavior of the other person. If the other person moved his hand across the table, the same gesture will be produce a few seconds later.

This subtle mirroring of very simple gestures and physical expressions actually improved the success rate of the respondents. A positive outcome resulted a staggering 67% of the time when subtle matching and mirroring was used by the respondents.

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