Mirror Neurons Can Be Management Tools
by Carol Kinsey Goman
Nonverbal communication has been the subject of extensive research over the past several years, and one of the most interesting recent findings came from a laboratory in Italy where scientists were studying the brain cells of macaque monkeys.
Researchers had confirmed that when a monkey performs a single highly specific hand action, neurons in the motor cortex are very active. For example, every time a monkey reached for a peanut, certain cells on either side of its brain “fired,” creating a buzzing sound that was detectable by highly sophisticated monitoring equipment.
One day a monkey wired up for such an experiment happened to see a human grab a peanut. Much to the researchers’ surprise, the same neurons fired in the same way. In terms of motor-cell activity, the monkey’s brain could not tell the difference between actually doing something and seeing it done. Because the cells reflected the actions that the monkey observed in others, the neuroscientists named them mirror neurons.
Later experiments confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in humans within a system of neurons that allows the brain to perform its highest tasks, including learning and imitating. But the research revealed another surprise. For human beings, the cells mirrored sensations and feelings along with actions.
Ever wonder why, when someone near you yawns, you also yawn? Or why you cringe when you see another person getting a vaccination? Turns out, it’s your mirror neurons at work. The moment you see an emotion expressed on someone’s face—or read it in a gesture or posture—you subconsciously place yourself in the other person’s mental shoes and begin to sense that same emotion within yourself. Because they provide a biological basis for compassion, mirror neurons are sometimes referred to as Dalai Lama neurons.
Seeing Stimulates Synchrony
No one is immune to emotional contagion. Facial gestures and their underlying emotions (both positive and negative) are highly infectious, and “catching” them is a universal human phenomenon. We all tend to mimic the facial expressions and reflect the moods of those with whom we have contact. Getting a genuine smile can brighten up our day. And angry frowns are upsetting.
We’re hardwired to mimic expressions and emotions and have been doing so since infancy. Nine-month-old babies look longer at their mothers and express greater joy when their mothers are themselves joyful. One-year-olds, after watching a videotape of an actress portraying either positive or negative feelings, will mimic the actress’s expressions and alter their own emotions accordingly.
As adults, we remain susceptible. Swedish researchers found that merely seeing a picture of a happy face produces fleeting activity in the muscles that pull the mouth into a smile. In fact, whenever we look at a photograph of someone portraying any strong emotion, like sadness, disgust, or joy, our facial muscles automatically start to mirror that expression. And it isn’t just a physical response, since our facial expressions subtly trigger the corresponding feelings.
I’ll always remember walking into the kitchen one day and finding my husband and his father sitting at the table. Both men were leaning back with their hands behind their heads and their elbows wide apart, and both had their legs loosely crossed. They were deeply engrossed in conversation and totally oblivious to the fact that they were mirror images of each other. I didn’t have to overhear what they were saying to realize that (at that moment) father and son were in total rapport.
It’s called limbic synchrony, and it’s hardwired into the human brain.
When we are talking with someone we like or are interested in, we subconsciously switch our body posture to match that of the other person, mirroring that person’s nonverbal behavior and signaling that we are connected and engaged.
When a business colleague mirrors your body language, it’s a way of nonverbally expressing liking for you or agreement with you. And if you are one of two equal-status executives in a discussion, you may both unconsciously adopt similar postures to maintain your respective positions of authority.
Mirroring with Intent
When done with intent, mirroring can be an important part of developing business relationships. Utilizing this technique is an effective way to build rapport or to increase people’s comfort when they are resistant.
Start by observing a person’s body posture. Then subtly let your body reflect it. If the person’s arms are crossed, then slowly begin to cross your arms. If the person leans back, you do the same. In my work as a therapist, I even mimic a client’s breathing pattern, inhaling and exhaling in sync.
It’s a proven method. A recent research study observed two different teachers in the classroom. One used mirroring; the other did not. The students’ reactions to the teacher using mirroring techniques were substantially more positive. They believed that teacher was much more successful, friendly, and appealing.
When people are closed off or resistant, the easiest way to increase their comfort level is to utilize mirroring. This technique is useful with sales prospects, customers, and co-workers, among others.
Before you try this silent signal in a workplace setting, you can practice on strangers. The next time you are sitting in a waiting room or on an airplane, slowly begin to mirror a person sitting next to you. (This also works in restaurants where the other person is at a different table, but there is a line of sight between you.) Subtly mimic the position of the person’s legs and then the movement of arms and hands. Finally (if you are sitting close enough), see if you can inhale and exhale with the same rhythm as the person you are mirroring. You may be surprised at how quickly that person responds and starts a conversation with you. (This is not the technique to practice on an airplane if you prefer flying without chatting.)
In business situations, you will know that you have developed mutual rapport if your partner begins to mirror you in return. Change your arm position and see what happens. If you were using this technique in a sales presentation and your prospect subconsciously matched your body language, it would be a signal of trust and rapport. If your prospect mismatched, you would know you probably still had some convincing to do.
In Search of Real Communication
One executive told me that in negotiation sessions, he often mirrors the posture of the person he’s dealing with. He noticed that doing so gives him a better sense of what the other person is experiencing. I’ve noticed this as well. Our bodies and emotions are so closely linked that by assuming another person’s posture, you not only gain rapport, but actually get a feel for the other person’s frame of mind.
In On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding—to see the idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about.”
Reaching that goal of real communication—of understanding, of empathy—is why nonverbal literacy is so crucial to our professional success.
The One-Day Positive Emotions Project
Each of us gives and responds to hundreds of facial expressions daily—from co-workers’ grins to clenched-jaw displays around the conference table. Looked at another way, you are part of an emotional chain-reaction effect in your personal and professional life.
For one full day, make a conscious choice to spread only positive emotions. As you go through the day, notice how other people’s negative emotions may try to contaminate your good mood. The trick is not to let them. Instead, simply acknowledge what is happening, regroup, and get back on track!
Carol Kinsey Goman coaches executives and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to association and business audiences around the world. She can be reached at 510/526-1727; CGoman@CKG.com; or through CKG.com. This article is excerpted from her latest book, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (bkconnection,com).