To Mirror or Not to Mirror - Physical Empathy

One of the most common questions I get from clients, is whether you can really influence someone by mirroring their body language and posturing.

As with most things in nonverbal communication, the answer is not binary. Before we begin categorizing circumstances that can benefit from mirroring, let’s first make sure we are on the same page in defining what this concept means.

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Physical mimicry – or mirroring – simply defined, is when one individual begins to mimic, or mirror the movements and postures of other individuals around them. Most of the time, this will happen naturally due to the underlying limbic resonance, or human-interconnectivity we share with other human beings.

There is actually a really good reason for this type of mirroring to be hardwired into our systems. As Desmond Morris explains in People Watching, people tend to enjoy spending time and associating with people who are ‘like’ themselves. This liking factor, which also turns up in Cialdini’s Influence, isn’t limited to shared opinions. It also manifests as an association with people who look like us, and people who share similar physical rhythms with us.

When two or more people are in conversation and the conversation is one of mutual agreement or enjoyment, you will notice that people start to adopt similar ranges of movements and postures including leaning in to one another. The matching of one person’s physical rhythms and thematic postures to another is subtle and usually unintentional. Therefore, it usually goes unnoticed – and yet everyone conforming to the physical flavor of the conversation feels quite comfortable and at home within their pack.

The opposite is going to be true in a conversation where people are in disagreement. Instead of synchrony, you will observe an incongruence of postures, from overly aggressive to closed and leaning away from one another. Additionally, you might notice that their feet are also progressively pointing in a direction other than their interlocutor.

So how do you use this to your advantage? This is the tricky part. If you start to mirror or mimic someone’s movements in the effort to influence the other person, it is very possible that you will be discovered – or at the very least, you will create a sense of awkwardness in the group. This is because the underlying limbic resonance has not been established authentically.

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Is it a lost cause? Not so. What I work with my clients on is called ‘physical empathy’. This is a particular skill which allows my clients to do two things. First, I instruct clients to tune into their own postures and physical cadence. Second, I coach clients on identifying the general theme of movements coming from their conversation partner(s). By identifying the overall theme of physicality in a conversation, you can identify if people are generally comfortable, or uncomfortable. 

In the event someone is feeling comfortable, you can feel free to adopt postures which exude comfort – thus mimicking the overall physical mood (as opposed to the mirror-image of the person opposite you). Conversely, if someone is agitated or anxious, you may want to adopt a counterbalancing posture of neutrality, or one of decreased stature in order to get someone to feel more comfortable.

This topic is not one for a short article. There is so much that can be done to improve a situation if you are able to be physically empathetic.

As you see conversations happening all around you, tune into the postures and movements going on. Just how similar are they and what can they tell you about the sentiments of the group? I think you will find a rich tapestry of information ripe for the picking and the power is yours to behold.