Monkey See, Monkey Do: How Mimicry Can Lead to Better Outcomes

If you’ve ever felt like you’ve met a new best friend when speaking with a sales professional, chances are good you’ve met someone familiar with the latest data in communication research.

A recent study found that good things come to those who adopt the same tone, style and words as the people to whom they’re speaking. 

The Science of Mimicry

Negotiators receive better outcomes—30% better—when mimicking their counterpart’s language online, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The same study found that mimicking the other’s language is more effective when occurring early in the negotiation rather than at the end.

“From copywriting to face-to-face communication, it’s imperative to ‘match tone level’ as a way to create understanding between me (our company) and the people I am communicating with,” says Jacob Molz, a marketing, sales and communication expert.

Matching tone is important in both spoken and written communication. Amy Zhang, the founder and managing member of Affinity Fund Services LLC, a hedge fund administration firm, says she always alters her communication style a bit to mirror clients and their service providers. “Most hedge funds professionals are typically ‘type A’ personality, and prefer short and concise conversation online and offline,” she says. “Some want to chit chat more to establish some bonding before talking business.”

Related Article: 5 Scientific Ways to Secure a Sale

What is Mimicry and Mirroring?

Behavioral mimicry involves using emoticons, word-choice and jargon in a similar manner to the person with whom you are chatting or even emailing. Using behavioral mimicry in the early stages of text-based chat negotiations increases trust between participants. People tend to like those who act similarly to them. 

A similar communications strategy called mirroring involves matching the emotional “feel” of a conversation partner, as well as cultivating empathy for them. “Mirroring is about more than a set of actions we take for some end result,” says Kelly L. Harrigan, J.D., a corporate communications lead. “It’s a barometer of our ability to listen to, relate to, and care about others.”

The Sales Power of Mirroring

Consumer psychologist and retail consultant Bruce D. Sanders at RIMtailing, author of Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers, says mimicry and mirroring can, in fact, have a direct impact on sales. 

He points to a recent study published by the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Science, researchers observed 129 customers who asked for information about an MP3 player. In half the cases the employee had been told to mimic the customer. Seventy-nine percent of customers who interacted with a mimic bought an MP3; just 62% of those in the control group did.

Similarly, a  recent study by linguists at the Ohio State University and the University of Rochester reported that the degree to which we mimic someone else’s speech patterns is affected by how much we agree with what they are saying.

Related Article: Born to Sell: Do You Have Sales Personality?

It’s All About Empathy

“Particularly when negative emotions are involved, people often interrupt one another and just wait for their chance to say what’s on their mind,” says Dr. Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist and author, “they do not take the time to really hear one another. Mirroring can instantly defuse a stressful or awkward encounter by making someone feel like you understand their position.”

She often teaches her clients how to mirror those they communicate with to create better outcomes.  

Rodman gives the specific example of a situation in which mirroring could help in a sales context: “If a customer says, ‘I think this is a terrible product,’ you may initially feel drawn to defend your product or try to solve your customer’s problem with it. This makes your customer feel that you haven’t heard him, and he will redouble efforts to get you to see his perspective by reiterating how awful the product is, which gets you further and further away from keeping him as a customer.” 

By simply repeating the customer’s words back to him and waiting, you’ll likely get more information. “Once people feel heard and understood, they will listen to you problem-solve,” says Rodman, “but if the problem solving comes before the mirroring, you will look like you’re just pushing your agenda at all costs.”

Related Article: Surefire Signs Your Sales Strategy is a Success

Don’t Let Your Message Get Lost

As you add mirroring and subtle mimicry to your communication toolbox, be sure not to let these techniques get in the way of communicating a meaningful message. 

“Mirroring the pace, tone, and language of the other person can be useful for getting your message across, but mirroring does not guarantee understanding, especially if both parties are focused more on mirroring than on crafting and delivering an effective message,” cautions Zachary A. Schaefer, Ph.D., president of the communication consulting firm Spark The Discussion and Assistant Professor of Applied Communication Studies.

“The ‘mirroring-mirroring’ scenario increases the communication gap because none of the nonverbal behaviors have meaningful intent attached to them other than mimicry.”

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