Building Rapport Through Mimicry

December 2, 2013

Mimicry is creepy. It’s eerily effective, however, as we’re hard-wired to like people who are like us. Mirroring your interviewer’s verbal and nonverbal communication is a shortcut to building rapport – and nailing the interview.

Credit MIT Open CourseWareWe’ll get into target behaviors in just a moment, but first: timing is the most important variable in success or failure of these techniques. Mimic too quickly and your actions are perceived as mocking or uncomfortable. In Digital Chameleons: Automatic Assimilation of Nonverbal Gestures in Immersive Virtual Environments (pdf), Bailenson and Yee demonstrate increased perceptions of friendliness, helpfulness, and intelligence in participants interacting with simple digital avatars who mimicked their body language after a four second delay. Faster, and the mimicry is detected, making your partner distinctly uncomfortable.

If nonverbal behavior or communication isn’t your strong suite, it’s best to avoid mimicry and emphasize other conversational tactics.

Linguistic Mimicry

Surveying current research on the impact of emotional expression and rapport on negotiation scenarios, Mara Olekans observes that “linguistic mimicry during the early phases of [a] negotiation produced better outcomes for the mimicker”. A lot of people do this unconsciously, which is fun to observe in the wild. Accents, cadence, tone, structure… when humans – especially pairs of humans – develop rapport, some degree of mutual linguistic mimicry is quite common.

Building rapport through linguistic mimicry begins with active listening and observation. Take special note of the following characteristics:

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  • Pace How quickly does your partner speak? Do they pause frequently, trail off, or rattle out their words like spilled ball bearings?
  • Tone This is largely qualitative, but how does it sound like they feel? Are they engaged and positive? Arch and dry? Is your partner relaxed, intense, interested?
  • Sentence structure Does your partner use clipped, Cormac McCarthy phrases, or do they delight in rambling description and tangential clauses? Do they sound like they’re working from outline? Do they end every sentence with a question mark?
  • Diction and Word Choice Does your partner use a lot of technical terms in their common speech? How do they choose their words? Do they use first names or full titles when referring to colleagues? When they indicate understanding, do they “see” what you mean or does it “sound” right?
  • Conversational Tics Do they punctuate their speech with nonverbal sounds like “hm” or “ah”, or emotion-conveying noises, like a friendly chuckle?

The easiest way to hone the skills and speed required for linguistic mimicry – and to develop that all-important, qualitative “feel” for what works or doesn’t – is though functional interactions over the phone. Call companies you do business with and practice building rapport through linguistic mimicry with whoever answers. Navigating tech support and resolving disputes are great training opportunities. Once you’ve acquired some comfort with the skill set, try applying it to functional in-person interactions or spontaneous conversation in the course of daily life.

I should note, however, that beginning mimicry is best practiced on strangers. People already unconsciously familiar with your patterns of speech may find the sudden new behavior unusual and unsettling.

Exploiting Embodied Rapport

Credit AmberNectarFrom as young as three months, humans attempt to synchronize their posture, body language, and movements to others in their environment. Social psychologists call this behavioral synchrony, defined as a similarity of form and rhythm in movement. When a conversational partner mimics our posture, body language, or gestures, we are more inclined towards positive and open interaction; this is ’embodied rapport’. After all, we like people who are like us.

In the Bailenson/Yee paper we cited earlier, subjects rated digital avatars who mirrored their posture and movements to be more friendly, intelligent, and sophisticated than those who did not. If a CGI stick figure can rapidly build rapport through physical mimicry, surely a human being can do at least as well.

The notion of exploiting embodied rapport to “breed compassion, cooperation, emotional support satisfaction, and even elevated pain thresholds” is established in the experimental literature. The technique has the additional advantage of being far easier in practice than linguistic mimicry. Observe the following elements of your partner’s nonverbal signals and mirror them, subtly, after three to five seconds:

  • Posture Is their back ramrod straight, or are they relaxed? Leaning forward, or back? Do they slouch, hunch their shoulders when thinking, or physically pivot with shifts in content or topic?
  • Arm Position and Activity Arms crossed or open? Do they punctuate statements with gestures, fold their hands, drum their fingers?
  • Head Angle and Movement Is your partner a nodder? Do they tilt their head while you ask a question?
  • Eye Contact When do they seek or make eye contact, how often, and how long do they hold it?

Remember: timing is absolutely critical. Mimic too quickly and you appear odd or insulting. Too slowly, and the effect is lost. Three to five seconds is a comfortable range.

Advanced Mimicry Techniques

Once you’ve experimented with linguistic mimicry and induced behavioral synchrony, here are a few more advanced techniques to try:

Credit Chiswick Chap

  • As you gain comfort with your partner, it is possible to assemble “reaction sets” composed of physical movements and linguistic elements they’ve used in past responses. If a certain set of behaviors indicated interest or a positive response, your partner will receive that reaction set as you feeling the same way.
  • Behavioral synchrony can be used to measure your success in building rapport with a partner. Tests are easily conducted by leading a shift of posture, rather than mimicking your partner’s, and observing whether or not they echo the behavior. This isn’t strictly deterministic, but can be useful.
  • Humor can be surprisingly difficult to mimic, while a bombed joke can utterly derail an interview. Successful comedy requires a balance of surprise, careful transgression, and empathy that risks offense when it’s not stealing the show. If you’re not funny, don’t force this technique! Practice gradually by observing the sort of jokes people make, which facial expressions accompany which strains of humor, and – most importantly – how to tell polite laughter from the real thing. Your eventual goal is to predict and deliver the joke they would have told, had they only thought of it first.

Any personal experiences with mimicry? Tell us how it went in the comments.