As the height of summer arrives and vacation travel season kicks into high gear, I am reminded of the car trips we took as a family in the 1970’s traveling 14 hours from our suburban Philadelphia home to our Central Ontario cottage in a Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, with those infamous rear-facing third seats specially designed to induce car sickness in children.

mimicing with children in car

As the oldest boy—there were 4 boys and one older sister—I was the unofficial “tease meister” of the five Marsh kids. I took it upon myself to lead my younger brothers in making the entire journey as miserable as possible for our sister. (Though we are close today, she had a completely justifiable dislike for us back then, which climaxed during summer vacation.)

One of the favorite weapons in my considerable arsenal with which to inflict maximum infuriation (not to mention retaliation from her at some point either during—or long after the trip) was mimicry.  Every move my sister made—every movement, facial expression, and sound—we mockingly imitated. And the more angry and provoked my poor sister became the more it egged us on–until my father finally stopped the car and scared the daylights out of us.

If you grew up with siblings, I’ll bet you’ve also deployed this shameless tactic on your brothers or sisters with similar results. (Please don’t tell me I was the only sadistic sibling out there.) There’s something morbidly enjoyable in mimicking another person for pleasure.

mimicing

That is why I was so surprised to read that, according to volumes of research in social science, mimicry is one of the most powerful ways to build rapport, establish trust, and influence other people.

Really?

According to NY Times best-selling author Daniel Pink in his latest book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about What Moves Us, the use of mimicry is rooted in the origins of the human species. According to Pink, as human populations began to expand and societies started to develop, it required more sophisticated understandings and interactions with people. “People therefore looked to cues in the environment to determine whom they could trust.”, Pink writes. “One of those cues is the unconscious awareness of whether we are in synch with other people, and a way to do that is to match others’ behavioral patterns with their own.”

In a recent series of social experiments involving intense interactions such as negotiation and conflict resolution, here’s how social scientists instructed their subjects how to mimic:

…. when a person rubs his/her face, you should, too. If he/she leans back or leans forward in the chair, you should, too. However, it is very important that you mimic subtly enough so that the other person does not notice what you are doing, otherwise, this technique completely backfires.”

What’s fascinating to me is, in all the sales training courses I’ve taken and conferences I’ve attended over the past 30 years, no one has ever taught what Pink calls, “strategic mimicry.”

But what is even more fascinating are these research findings the author cites in the book:

…a Dutch study found that waitresses who repeated diners’ word for word (a common form of mimicry) earned 70 percent more tips than those who paraphrased orders—and that customers with servers who mimicked were more satisfied with their dining experience.  A Duke University experiment in which an interviewer presented what purported to be a new sports drink found that when people were subtly mimicked, they were more likely to say they would buy the drink and to predict that it would be a success.”

mimicing by waitress

So how can we apply these interesting findings and harness the power of mimicry to improve our success? Here are three practical take-aways:

  • Understand that mimicry is a powerful form of rapport-building.  We are all attracted to people who are like us. Think of how your closest friendships developed.  Chances are, they started over some form of common ground; mutual interests, children’s sports, lifestyle pursuits, etc. Mimikry is a subconscious way of saying to people you’ve never met, “I’m like you.” Think of it as a powerful tool to leverage the process of building trust and rapport with people.
  • Develop an awareness of how other people communicate through body language and gestures as well as words.  When it comes to conversation, most of us focus exclusively on words we exchange.  Instead, expand your understanding by becoming a student of non-verbal communication.  Pay attention! Notice the cues people are sending you that tell you whether they are responsive to you or not. Are they leaning forward or sitting back? Are their arms folded in front of them? Which way are their feet pointed? How often are they nodding?
  • Try it out, being careful not to over-do it. If you work in customer service, for instance, start by using the waitress example—by repeating, word for word, the instructions, concerns, or feedback communicated by your customers. It will force you to practice what Dan Pink calls, “attunement” (a characteristic of exceptional influencers) through better listening and closer connectivity. Then, once you’re comfortable with this, try mimicking your customers’ body language and gestures…and look for clues concerning their receptiveness to your proposition.

As Daniel Pink articulates in the book, “Each of us—because we’re human—has a selling instinct, which means that anyone can master the basics of moving others.”  In other words, the ability to sell—to move others—is a learnable skill that, regardless of what you do for a living, will fuel your growth and success. Learning to apply the science of  “strategic mimikry” is an excellent tool to get you there.

Now, if I can only convince my sister that I was doing it for her own good…

Question: What do you think? Have you ever heard someone speak about mimikry as a tool like this? Do you think it is manipulative or do you think it could be useful? I’m interested in your opinion.

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