Without realising, many of us mimic body language, facial expressions and gestures when we are talking to other people. Think about the last time you spent an extended amount of time with a friend or colleague. The chances are that you may have found yourself using a similar tone or language as them, subconsciously imitating their speech patterns.
Research has shown that ‘mirroring" begins as early as infancy. In 2008, a study found babies begin to mimic people around them which helps to establish a sense of empathy, to help them begin to understand emotions. Essentially, mirroring is something we are biologically predisposed to do as social animals to prevent conflict with others.
However, research suggests that "verbal mirroring" — otherwise known as "linguistic mirroring" — can also be a useful tool if used intentionally. If you’ve ever got a ‘good vibe’ from a particular person, it may well be because they were trying to mirror your behaviour.
Verbal mirroring can also be a simple yet effective way of establishing a connection with someone if done purposefully. Adopting the same gestures, tone or posture as someone can enhance bonding and help with persuading, negotiating or networking because the person who is being mirrored feels comfortable.
By engaging in synchronous behaviour, you’re effectively creating familiarity, making them feel more secure.
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Maxim Sytch, an associate professor of management at the University of Michigan, and Yong H. Kim, assistant professor of management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, carried out research last year to find out more about this parroting technique.
In their study, Sytch and Kim examined how mirroring had the potential to help lawyers get along with judges and increase their chances of winning cases. The pair analysed more than 25 million words across 1,800 legal documents related to patent infringement lawsuits in the US. Then, they used a computer-based linguistic analysis tool to track the writing styles of the judges and lawyers involved.
The researchers measured analytical thinking, clout , authenticity and emotional tone, cross-referencing the results with lawyers who had and hadn’t won their cases. The results showed that the legal teams who mirrored a judge’s preferred writing style in documents such as past legal opinions, their chances of winning could more than double.
On average, lawyers in the researcher’s sample had an 11.5% chance of winning. However, lawyers who did more verbal mirroring saw their rates go up to 25%.
“While such behaviour results in a higher likelihood of winning a lawsuit, it also creates an inherent risk,” Sytch and Kim noted. “In stacking their legal teams with lawyers who have connections to judges, companies often shortchange the human capital - lawyers’ skill sets - required to win a case, which adversely affects legal outcomes if the desired judge is not assigned to the case.”
Clearly, verbal mirroring can be a powerful device. But what are the pitfalls?
When done subtly, mirroring someone can be a good way to build rapport. However, it’s important to mimic someone’s behaviour covertly. Obvious, over-the-top mirroring won’t result in greater rapport. Instead, it will give people the impression you’re trying to pressure them into doing something, which can be off-putting.
Being too obvious, or attempting to mirror unusual phrases or accents, can risk insulting the person you are speaking to. It can also come across as quite unnerving, too. Verbal mirroring is only successful if the other person does not pick up that you are doing it on purpose.
In 2011, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found body language mimicry doesn’t always lead to positive social outcomes. Psychologists Piotr Winkielman and Liam Kavanagh, along with philosophers Christopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland, found that mirroring can come at a reputational cost. They carried out three experiments which found that mimicry is more nuanced than many people realise and isn’t always “uniformly beneficial to the mimicker.”
“Mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence. But it is not enough to simply know how to mimic,” said Winkielman. “It's also important to know when and when not to. The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate.”
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