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The Pitfalls of Nonverbal Rapport – Pt.1

We Need To Talk About Rapport....

The Pitfalls of Nonverbal Rapport – Pt. 1

Who hasn’t heard about the magical power of achieving good nonverbal rapport?

Nonverbal communication constitutes easily half or more of your communications to others. It can be achieved many ways – from tonality and physical likeness to ethnicity and common hobbies to postural mirroring and even mimicking of accents. And it is powerful. Unfortunately, some of the subtle nuances of nonverbal rapport that are gained through early interaction may be lost in the technology age.

Learning how to achieve nonverbal rapport may soon be a mostly learned skill – for those who recognize the value of it. Luckily, there is a lot of research going on in the area of emotion and behavior that can be used to generate better and more elegant nonverbal rapport.

Mirroring, including postural mimicry, can be an especially good way of building rapport. In fact, in a recent study, researchers  found that physical mimicry lessened the affects, perhaps even permanently, of implicit prejudice. This is a big deal because implicit prejudice, beliefs, and behaviors are acquired without our knowledge and stored in long-term memory. They are like root programs running outside of conscious awareness. Both beneficial and non-beneficial beliefs at this level are deeply ingrained and acted on as truth. Changing them often takes effort so any new way of altering implicit prejudices is a real breakthrough.

If you think you don’t have implicit prejudices, check this out.  Implicit prejudices are not all bad. They help to define in-group from out-group. It helps us to better know who we are and who our people are. It can also be very handy information for the negotiator.

Many social, implicit prejudices are so cultural that they are subtly reinforced in the media and constitute deeply rooted beliefs for a large portion of the population. In fact, if you have not given much thought to your own ideas of in-group and out-group, society’s views will likely be your default.

So now we have even more evidence of the power mirroring or mimicking. It makes you want to go try it out, doesn’t it? Not so fast….

When done well, mirroring is a great way to build nonverbal rapport. It helps to create feelings of trust and familiarity between the parties. It is a very useful tool negotiation. But can it get you in trouble?

You bet.

Several things can happen. Here are a few of them.

  • No Style – you can be clumsy and irritate people instead of making friends.
  • Courting the Enemyyou may mirror the wrong person in front of other people and pay the price socially.
  • Reflecting What They Don’t Want To See – you might inadvertently mirror unwanted or rejected aspects of the other person.
  • In Too Deep – you can get sucked into the emotional state of another, especially when you are working with someone in crisis.
  • Creating An Unwanted Attachment.

In this post, we will look at the first three pitfalls since they all involve things that generally happen when rapport is first initiated. In the following posts, we will look at a few of the more treacherous pitfalls and discuss a few ways of safeguarding against some of the unwanted outcomes of building rapport.

Here are three pitfalls that can ruin rapport building at the very beginning and a few things you can do to avoid them….

No Style

You can be too bold with mirroring – but that is determined case-by-case. I have seen blatant, obvious, over-the-top mimicry succeed undetected by the other person. You often see that in sales and smart people only fall for it once. After that, they are wary of being scammed. However, it can be done well by someone skilled….

In 1987 I went to Houston for a seminar with Dr. Richard Bandler. It was a small group.  One night we all wanted to see the town together but the group was too big for a cab. The hotel had an airport shuttle but said we could only go from the hotel to a single destination. We agreed.

When we got into the van, Dr. Bandler began building rapport with the driver by mimicking the driver’s thick Texas accent. It was a surprise to all of us – especially after hearing him talk all day! At 17, I was fighting giggles. The tactic seemed obnoxious to us but it worked like a charm.

Dr. Bandler mimicked with style. Since he started the conversation with the accent, the driver didn’t even notice. Dr. Bandler was immediately accepted as an in-group fellow. Needless to say, we saw Houston. We drove around for hours. Great rapport ended up getting us a tour of town.

When you are using mirroring as a rapport tool, take your time. Watch and listen to the other person first. Start with small, subtle mirroring movements. For instance, if the other person crosses their legs at the knee, wait a minute or two before repositioning and crossing your legs at the ankle. You get the idea.

If the other person notices that you are you mirroring them, you have undermined communication. It will likely be much harder to establish any kind of rapport with them. They may perceive any further efforts to establish rapport as manipulation.

If you do get caught or notice that they are on to you, stop trying to get rapport and just be yourself. They will likely move on, too. If they point it out, let them know that you are a little bit nervous because the meeting/communication/etc…is very important to you. You were making an extra effort to establish good rapport to help things go smoothly. Then stop trying to get rapport and just be yourself.

Courting the Enemy

Tales of turncoats go back for centuries and it always starts with an ambassador who gets publicly friendly with the other side. People are wired to be wary of the teacher’s pet, the boss’s confident, and people who hang out with people who are known to be unscrupulous. It’s bad form to get too close to the bad guys – at least in front of other people.

In other words, if you mirror an undesirable in an attempt to build rapport with them, your reputation with onlookers may be imperiled. You don’t have to align with anybody really bad, either. In a recent study, people who were observed mirroring an unfriendly interviewer were rated to have low general competence, trustworthiness and likeability. The video reviewers were not instructed to look for mimicry and the results were the same even when the interviewer in the videos was blurred. It was the physical alignment that made the difference.

About the only way to get around this is to limit rapport building in public to verbal only. You could also do any nonverbal rapport on an energetic level. One way is to practice generating what Carl Rogers called unconditional acceptance for people. When you do that, they feel safe and you have accepted them without condoning or condemning. They are who they are, and that’s OK.

Rogers believed that a therapist could not render good client service unless they were able to set aside their own beliefs of right and wrong. By attaining a mindset of unconditional acceptance for the patient, the therapist could make the patient feel at ease, be more objective, and give better service – without creating too strong of a bond with the patient.

Reflecting What They Don’t Want To See

This one is a little tricky because sometimes it is hard to tell when someone has very low self-esteem or harbors self-hate. If they do, you may have more credibility not being like them. This situation may be the basis for the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt”.

People who don’t like themselves generally feel safe with their in-group but also hold equals in distain. If you are like them, and they reject themselves, they may reject you, too. You will be accorded as much respect as they think they deserve – and that might not be much.

Pay attention to people and ask questions. Listen to them. Ask them about accomplishments and see how they act talking about themselves. Pay them a sincere compliment or show appreciation and see if they accept it, make a snarky remark, or downplay it. Responses like that can be revealing.

If you discover that you are dealing with someone who is obviously self-destructive or has obviously low-self esteem, practice unconditional acceptance. Accept them without creating the familiarity and try not to build likeness or familiarity between you. You want them to feel safe. You do not need to come across as an equal to do that.

Are you a rapport master like Dr. Bandler? If you are going to use mirroring or mimicry, be good at it. Learn about it. Become a master.

There are a few books available in the Negotiation Ninja Store that I highly recommend – The Magic of Rapport by Jerry Richardson, Persuasion Engineering by Bandler and La Valle, and Beyond Selling Bagley and Reese.

Next up, what to do to avoid taking on someone’s emotional state when you are mirroring – and what to do if it happens.

Until next time, happy rapport building!


PS – If you want to learn this information and really master it, check out Negotiation Ninja coaching. You will learn exactly what you need to know to reach your negotiation or communication goals – fast.





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