Mirroring is one of the crucial steps in building rapport. Science has uncovered what they call mirror neurons in our brain that automatically take on the speech and gestures of those around us. We act, speak and often feel similar to those with whom we interact. This is the study of mirroring. One of the forerunners in the study and use of mirroring was Dr. Milton Erickson.
One story has it that a 17 year old, polio stricken Erickson overheard the doctor telling his mother that Milton would not live through the next day. So he asked his mother to place a mirror in his room so he could watch one more sunset.
Fortunately for us, young Milton Erickson survived much longer than one more sunset. But the mirror remained. Eventually Milton began to notice small muscle movements of his own. He also had the time to watch people as they interacted with each other. The little twitches and movements he saw in the mirror watching himself became clear in other people. He realized that when people got in a state of rapport, they often mirrored the movements, words, tones and even breathing of each other. Eventually he used this knowledge of mirroring in his practice as a therapist. He was able to quickly build a sense of belonging in the clients who hired him by mimicking their tone, words and gestures.
Erickson learned that these subconscious actions are powerful, which opened doors to the healing of patients through subconscious means. Most times we aren’t aware of mirroring. It doesn’t matter if we are the mirror or the mirroree, we usually don’t see it. But it happens anyway. Erickson found what scientist now know is the result of mirror neurons.
The American Pshychological Association explains it like this.
-You’re walking through a park when out of nowhere, the man in front of you gets smacked by an errant Frisbee. Automatically, you recoil in sympathy. Or you’re watching a race, and you feel your own heart racing with excitement as the runners vie to cross the finish line first. Or you see a woman sniff some unfamiliar food and wrinkle her nose in disgust. Suddenly, your own stomach turns at the thought of the meal.
For years, such experiences have puzzled psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers, who’ve wondered why we react at such a gut level to other people’s actions. How do we understand, so immediately and instinctively, their thoughts, feelings and intentions?
Finding The Evidence
Now, some researchers believe that a recent discovery called mirror neurons might provide a neuroscience-based answer to those questions. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. They were first discovered in the early 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.
Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, who with his colleagues at the University of Parma first identified mirror neurons, says that the neurons could help explain how and why we “read” other people’s minds and feel empathy for them. If watching an action and performing that action can activate the same parts of the brain in monkeys–down to a single neuron–then it makes sense that watching an action and performing an action could also elicit the same feelings in people.
The concept might be simple, but its implications are far-reaching. Over the past decade, more research has suggested that mirror neurons might help explain not only empathy, but also autism and even the evolution of language.
In fact, psychologist V.S. Ramachandran, PhD, has called the discovery of mirror neurons one of the “single most important unpublicized stories of the decade.”-
The next time you are speaking to a friend, hold your arms in a certain pose, different than theirs. You will notice that eventually they will mimic your stance. Or try to replicate their breathing pattern as you speak. If you get this right, the other person will open up, be more forthcoming and yo will develop rapport almost immediately. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mirroring.