Isopraxism is a pretty amazing phenomenon. Also known as "mirroring" (and “limbic synchrony” when in reference to body movements), isopraxism is when two individuals unconsciously match each other's body language and movements. This is frequently done without the first person realising they are replicating the movements of another. Isopraxism can be found in a variety of cultures and species, although it is most prevalent among humans. It's been shown to be an incredibly effective way to build rapport and create a sense of trust and understanding between two people.
Read our previous post on this here:
Mirroring became more popular among therapists after Harville Hendrix promoted it as a useful tool for dialoguing couples. "Mirroring is simply a matter of carefully repeating back what was said for verification, and repeating the process until we get it right," Hendrix says in his book "The Couples Companion: Meditations and Exercises for Getting the Love You Want.”
Think about it – when you see someone who is smiling and nodding their head, it's only natural for you to do the same, right? And when you see someone who is crossing their arms or legs, you're likely to mirror that same posture. Isopraxism is a way of subconsciously signalling that we're on the same page as the other person, literally and figuratively.
As Chris Voss notes, isopraxism isn’t limited to just body movements - we can also ‘mirror’ verbal conversational patterns too! When in conversation with someone, we can simply repeat their last three words, with a vocal inflection to denote a question. 1. It’s an open question, which gives them room to elaborate/clarify a point they previously made. 2. It shows you take a genuine interest in the person’s life, who may appreciate the opportunity to speak more about themselves in conversation with someone who wants to get to know them more. Taken together, these findings suggest that isopraxism is an effective behaviour that confers a number of benefits on those who engage in it. (For more about how to effectively practice isopraxism, check out this article on deconstructing the mirroring effect here).
A seasoned FBI negotiator, Chris Voss, demonstrates the concept of calibrated questions in his book, Never Split the Difference. He also formed the Black Swan Group to teach private-sector clients how to negotiate effectively. Mirroring, according to Voss, is one of the most basic yet successful tools in any negotiator's arsenal. In a negotiation, simple repetition can help you obtain crucial information and put your counterpart at ease.
As well as being an unconscious coping mechanism in new spaces, isopraxism can also be used to consciously seek out and build relationships. Though it may seem odd at first glance, isopraxism can actually be quite effective. Below are some reasons why.
So why is isopraxism so effective?
Copying someone's actions can help to build rapport and foster trust. When we see someone else doing something we recognise, it gives us a sense of comfort and familiarity. This can be especially useful in new or unfamiliar situations. By imitating another person's actions, we are effectively saying that we are on the same "wavelength" and share their values and goals (for more on striking up good conversations with humans, click through here).
Furthermore, people will feel more comfortable talking about themselves in environments where they feel like people are taking a genuine interest in them. It's no secret that being interested in other people is the key to making them like you. They will feel liked and respected if you take the time to listen attentively and encourage them to share about themselves. They will be more likely to like and respect you as a result (for more about making people like you, check out this article).
Isopraxism can facilitate coordination within a group. For example, when a flock of birds is flying in formation, isopraxism helps them to maintain their formation and avoid collisions.
Isopraxism isn’t just limited to language. You might be astonished to hear that words account for only 7% of all communication. In other words, what you say will only account for about 10% of how your message is received. Voice tone accounts for 38% of communication, whereas body language accounts for 55%. (see the 7-38-55 rule to master the art of communication!).
The source for this information is Professor Emeritus of Psychology (UCLA) Albert Mehrabian's articles on the relative value of verbal and nonverbal communication. Mehrabian comes to two findings as a result of his investigation. There are three key factors in face-to-face communication: words, tone of voice, and nonverbal behaviour.
Second, nonverbal behaviour is critical for expressing feelings and attitudes, especially when they are in conflict. To put it another way, if the tone of voice and nonverbal behaviour contradict the words, people are more likely to believe the tone and nonverbal behaviour rather than the words.
By responding to others in conversation with similar body movements, we can create a sense of familiarity with those we’re around. Progression, achieved by coordinating different ideas, then, becomes much easier as members within a group aren’t likely to feel threatened when challenged.
Isopraxism has also been shown to promote social bonding and cooperation within a team. In one study, for example, chimpanzees who engaged in isocratic behaviours were more likely to form close social bonds and cooperate with one another. In social settings, there are unwritten social rules that everyone tends to follow. Beyond that, deliberately mirroring those you are in conversation with allows you to form bonds quickly. For example, repeating the last 3 words a person says in conversation with a slight vocal (denoting a question) is a very effective tactic to get others to talk about themselves more. As a leader, here's how it works for you: When you see an emotion expressed on a teammate's face or read it in his or her movements or posture — mirror neurons fire. You then begin to recollect and experience that same emotion as if you were in the other person's "mental shoes." Your mirror neurons provide you the ability to feel other people's pleasures and tragedies and to connect with them on an emotional level. Mirroring team members' facial expressions and body positions instantly displays empathy and indicates that you understand and will consider the feelings of those around you when deciding how to respond. This also explains why mirroring and the resulting "connected" feeling is such an important aspect of forming a productive team.
Isopraxism can help to reduce stress levels. When people are constantly bombarded with new and different stimuli, it can be overwhelming. Even if you’re not a fan of small talk, there’s a time and place for everything. Not everyone wants to achieve peak cognitive arousal, especially in new social environments (for more on stress and cognitive arousal, click through here). In those first few moments, you’d benefit more from gauging what vocal tones and body movements make the person most comfortable, and mirroring.
Isopraxism provides a way for people to tune out the chaos and the unknown by mirroring actions, tone of voice and even using the vernacular as the people we’re speaking to. By making ourselves relatable through mirroring, we allow the observer to become to accept us in their space as familiar stimuli and make it much easier for conversation to flow.
Finally, isopraxism is an efficient way to communicate. When everyone is using the same body language and gestures, it eliminates ambiguity and confusion. In a world that is often chaotic and confusing, isopraxism provides a simple way to connect with others. As a result, isopraxism can be a powerful tool for building relationships and establishing communication.
Voss recommends combining isopraxism, with calibrated questions and a whole host of other seemingly simple conversational techniques to demonstrate empathy and improve the flow of conversations with strangers, well-known friends and enemies alike. For more on some other techniques to support the flow of conversation, buy his book Never Split the Difference and check out this article)
As a follow up to the previous articles explaining “What” and “How” isopraxism works, this article breaks down “Why” it works. There are many benefits of using isopraxism anytime you need to build a connection with someone, including
- Build rapport and foster trust
- Facilitate coordination
- Improve social bonding and cooperation
- Reduce stress
- Improve communication and the flow of conversation between people.
So next time you want to build a connection with someone, try mirroring their body language. You might just find yourself having a much more productive and enjoyable conversation!