The Benefits and Challenges of Mirroring & Matching

How often have you been with a close friend or family member and noticed after a while that you are sitting with the same posture, and matching each other’s tone as you talk? Do you notice this in others when you see best friends getting coffee together? Such behavior is often simply thought of as ‘connection’ or ‘chemistry,’ but it is also sometimes referred to as “Mirroring and Matching”: “Mirroring” referring to the simultaneous reflection of another’s behavior, and “Matching” referring to a more conscious time lag, such as leaning in closer a few seconds after the other person does. Regardless of the name, behavioral research suggests that this behavior is an evolutionary mechanism, which helps build rapport and trust. It’s not a surprise, then, that successful salespeople are often instinctively skilled in this area – perhaps you even find yourself exhibiting the same behavior with clients. I once worked with a facilitator who used Mirroring and Matching masterfully, to help a student make it through an attack of hyperventilation before medical help could come to assist. This was an eye-opening example of seeing someone who felt isolated and panicked before the facilitator came to partner alongside her and breathe with her, first Matching, then Mirroring, and finally guiding her back to the safety of slower breathing.

On a more mundane level, Mirroring and Matching can be helpful in emotionally charged conversations, both with non-verbal cues and with spoken language. If you’re outgoing and gregarious by nature, your tendency with a quieter team member might be to talk more and be louder to bring them out, but, as we all know, this can often lead to them withdrawing further; matching their tone, their body language and their energy level can be more honoring and respectful of what they bring, and build rapport that can lead to new horizons. Restating what someone tells you using the same key words they used does two things: 1) check for understanding and 2) build trust to support next steps. And if you’re a parent, or spend time with kids regularly, you may instinctively know the value of just ‘getting in their world’ – engaging with kids on their level to show love and respect for who they are. And whether or not this comes naturally to you, the skills of Mirroring and Matching can be developed and cultivated.

The temptation might be to use Mirroring and Matching with your team – especially people of different backgrounds than your own. This can be problematic, however. Mimicking someone’s every movement is disingenuous, can feel like you’re making fun of them, and can be counterproductive – creating distrust rather than rapport. We each carry our own cultural norms and cues; copying those of someone from a different culture may have an impact of mocking them, or of cultural appropriation. If Mirroring and Matching is practiced with respect, however, it can deepen and strengthen both personal and professional relationships. After all, we already practice these tools without any conscious thought with people around whom we feel comfortable! Why not simply aim for feeling comfortable around a greater diversity of people?

How can the tools of Mirroring and Matching be useful for you and your team this week?

This Week’s Tip:

If you are a manager or leader, you are probably used to setting the energy level and tone for others, and expecting others to match that. Try switching it up with the tools of Mirroring and Matching this week to see what happens. How are you already using Mirroring and Matching – either intentionally or subconsciously? When might they be useful to use this week? Here are some techniques you might consider implementing:

  1. Matching physiology. This body language might include posture, gestures, and facial expressions.
  2. Matching language and vocal patterns. This might include speech rate, volume, tonality, and pitch. You might also want to restate key phrases the other person uses, to check for understanding and support next steps.
  3. Matching energy levels. Some people are naturally energetic while others are more relaxed. In some settings you will want to match the energy levels of those you are with.

Try Mirroring and Matching this week when you’re in a meeting with someone with a different tone than yours – whether at work, at home, or elsewhere in your community.

Try these out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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