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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

Mirror, Mirror...on the wall.


“Mirroring” is the subconscious replication of another person's nonverbal signals and often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family. Mirroring is distinct from conscious imitation – it takes place in everyday interactions and often goes unnoticed by both the person enacting the mirroring behaviours as well as the individual who is being mirrored. In short, it’s a form of unconscious nonverbal communication.

Mirroring is caused by a distinctive class of brain neurons that discharge both when an individual executes a motor act and when s/he observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex. In other words, mirroring is exceedingly important in how we humans interact with the world.

The mirror neurons allow humans and other primates connection and understanding with the individuals who they are mirroring, as well as allowing the individual who is being mirrored to feel a stronger connection with the other person.

The display of mirroring often starts in infancy. When parents mirror their infants, the action helps the child develop a greater sense of self-awareness and self-control, as they can see their emotions reflected in their parent's faces. Babies begin to mimic their parents and establish connections with particular body movements. The infant continues to establish connections with other individual's emotions and subsequently mirror their movements.

Mirror neurons are also involved in one of the most intriguing aspects of our complex thought processes, which is “Intention understanding”. There are two distinct processes of information that one can get observing an action done by another individual. The first component is what action is being done? And the second more complex component is what for or, why (Intention) the action is being done. Mirroring allows children to understand what the intentions of an everyday action are before seeing the entire sequence to play out (Rizzolatti, Fabbri-Destro (2008)). A child can see someone pick up food with the intention to eat and fire all necessary motor chains needed for them to pick up their own food and go through the motions of eating it as well. It has been shown that children with autism lack this motor chain reaction and are thought to use other senses, such as visual or other physical senses, to accomplish similar tasks.

Deliberate mirroring is a powerful and useful tool that can change prejudicial first impressions. In a study by Word, Zanna and Cooper (1974) interviewers were instructed to follow specific types of body language in different experimental conditions. In one experiment, interviewers were instructed to use body language that signalled they were distant and uninterested (such as leaning away or avoiding eye contact). In another experiment they were asked to demonstrate more welcoming body language (such as smiling and making eye contact). As a result, the individuals being interviewed began to mirror the actions of the interviewer, and thus the individuals in the condition with less friendly body language fared worse within the interview than did individuals in the friendly one.

So intentional mirroring is a great technique that mediators can use to build empathy, rapport and trust with the parties. This can range from mirroring the parties' posture, tone, but more importantly, what they say. Parties may believe that because the mediator replicates their gestures, that s/he may hold similar beliefs and attitudes. This is more likely to lead increased rapport and constructive communication.

In a 2003 study the University of Nijmegen (van Baaren 2003) conducted an experiment using 2 groups of waiters in a restaurant setting. The Group 1 waiters lavished positive reinforcement on their dinner guests when they were ordering - with words like “great” “no problem” “sure”. The Group 2 waiters "mirrored" their guests by repeating back to them the dishes they had ordered only - without any positive additions. Surprisingly, the tips given to the Group 2 waiters, who only “mirrored” the orders, were 70% higher than those given to the waiters who used positive reinforcement only.

"Mimicry creates bonds between people - it induces a sense of 'we-ness'," said van Baaren. "You know that what you're doing is ok, and you become more generous." Personally, I think it's also that people ordering food in a restaurant want to "know" they have been heard correctly. They are maybe less interested in being flattered (?).

But a word of caution. Some people, especially those on the Asperger’s Spectrum, may be less likely to exhibit mirroring, as they may be less unconsciously and consciously aware of the actions of others. As someone who does a lot of community mediation I have experienced this fairly often – where parties can appear socially awkward, or have mental health issues. If someone is displaying negative signals there’s very little to be gained by mirroring that!

Also bear in mind that parties in a negotiation situation are likely to unconsciously mirror the person of highest status or power in the room (Mintz, 1985). This unconscious reflex may be done in order to create an illusion of increased status, or create rapport with the individual in power, or leverage their bargaining position. This means you can get an escalation of bad behaviour in a mediation or negotiation - all due to unconscious mirroring. Next time you are in a tough negotiation watch to see what happens when a party crosses their arms or laces their fingers and puts them behind their head. Chances are, the party on the other side will do the same, or something similar.

So my advice to negotiators and mediators is to use mirroring, and watch carefully how it’s being displayed in the room.

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