Mirror-Mirror on the Wall

Practical Applications for Nonverbal Intelligence and the Emotional Indicators and Benefits of Mirroring

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

4-Minute Read

ἴσος πρᾶξις These two words in Greek mean, literally, “same behavior”. Phonetically, it’s Isos Praxis and it is a critical part of nonverbal intelligence. Here’s why.

Mirror Neurons, Monkeys, and Babies

Found first in monkey brains, “Mirror neurons” are a special type of neuron that fire up when a person physically acts or when a person observes another person doing the same thing. [1]

If you have an infant child or grandchild, do this. Lean in and crack a big old smile. The baby’s mirror neurons will recognize your smile and the baby will mimic you. It happens the other way too, when a baby smiles at an adult who automatically smiles back. [2]

The Basics of Mirroring

Mirroring is a nonverbal way of building rapport, trust, and strengthening relationships. This is one of the reasons US Presidents invite dignitaries to Camp David, where they can stroll in unison among the peaceful grounds.

Walking is a wonderful way to mirror. You can see this in couples as they walk, or when they sit together, which looks like this:

When you meet someone for the first time, you can mirror their facial expressions, body positions, and even their tone of  voice. For example, if you are talking with someone and they suddenly cross their legs, you can do the same. Or, if suddenly the person with whom you’re talking leans in, so should you. Perhaps you’re talking with someone and they suddenly lower their voice. You should too. This is a nonverbal way of building rapport. And, of course, when you build rapport, you increase the chances of more effective communication.

If you are in a leadership position, the ability to mirror a subordinate shows empathy, a key character trait of effective leaders.

The Use of Mirroring in Research

During my interviews and even in focus groups I mirror with the respondents. This creates an atmosphere of psychological comfort and helps the respondent relax and speak their minds more effectively and candidly. However, it can backfire if I am too obvious, making me look insincere.

Learn to Mirror

You can learn to mirror too. At first, you can practice with someone you know preferably in front of a mirror (they tend not to lie).

Here are a few tips on how to mirror without appearing like a mocking mime.

  1. Observe carefully. So that you can determine how to mirror, you must be aware of the person’s posture.
  2. Practice “Active Listening”. Prepare for the conversation, silently observe verbal and non-verbal cues, and then provide feedback.
  3. Use Smooth and Subtle Gestures. When actively mirroring, avoid sudden, jerking movements.
  4. Pivot With the Context. That is, not all people or events are the same so levels of mirroring may vary.

Mirroring is one of the most important things you can do in a conversation. Learn to mirror and you will enhance your conversations and relationships with this technique.

Most Communication is Nonverbal. Are You Fluent?

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510904/#:~:text=Mirror%20neurons%20represent%20a%20distinctive,first%20discovered%20in%20monkey%27s%20brain.

[2]             Givens, David B.; White, John. The Routledge Dictionary of Nonverbal Communication. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.