Tap this Secret to Creating Rapport

In 1992, a group of scientists in Parma, Italy, were doing research with macaque monkeys. They watched as one monkey looked at a second one open and eat a banana. The motor cortex in the first monkey lit up as though it also was eating a banana. The brains in both monkeys were literally firing in sync, even when one was only observing the actions of the other.

This gave birth to the idea of mirror neurons. These neurons are activated when 1) you are moving in the presence of others and 2) when you see someone else move—which is the “mirror” part. They are found in people, primates and some birds.

In short, your brain can’t tell the difference between what it sees or imagines and what you’re actually doing.

Then popular imagination got ahead of the science. Suddenly there were predictions that mirror neurons were responsible for empathy. That these were “cells that could read minds”: identify the intent of others’ actions and determine their goals. That “broken” mirror neurons were involved in autism.

As leaders, we’ve seen management fads come and go. Most had the kernel of a good idea. Let’s get back to what works about mirror neurons.

What’s Up with Mirror Neurons?

Know that your subconscious mind is tuned into the body language and behavior of the people you’re with (even when that’s on a screen). This is a three-step process:

  1. Your mirror neurons engage as you see someone move
  2. Your motor cortex (responsible for moving your body) lights up, as though you are doing the action you see
  3. Your motor cortex prompts your body to mirror the other person’s behavior (movement)

This is old survival stuff. When we were in tribes, we didn’t want our looks or behavior to be too different from everyone else—otherwise we might get kicked out. So our brain prompted us to fit in.

How many times have you been in a meeting and saw the person across from you had his hands clasped on the conference table—then noticed yours were, too?

Mirror Neurons as a Management Communication Tool

Now that you understand your brain is paying attention to body language, use it as a way to connect with others.

Have a Difficult Conversation Coming Up? Know that most people react to that as a threat. They feel anxious and want to protect themselves. This unconscious urge shows up in their bodies as they lean back, cross their arms, or fold their hands tightly.

Notice if you’re doing this—and stop! You don’t want other people mirroring the same closed and protective body language back at you. (Remember: moods are contagious.)

Instead, choose to relax your body and make it looser. Lean forward a bit. Uncross your arms. Fold your hands comfortably. Look at the other person and smile. Her mirror neurons will pick up on this and invite her body to be less rigid.

You’ll break the atmosphere of gearing up for a confrontation and increase the chances of having a more fruitful conversation.

Want to Connect with a Prospect or Colleague? Know that your subconscious acts on affinity bias: we favor someone we have something in common with or believe is like us.

Pay attention to the other person’s body language. Let your mirror neurons do their job. They’ll prompt you to sit, stand, move your arms, etc., in a way that resembles him or her. Your motor cortexes will be lighting up in a similar way, connecting the two of you at a molecular level. Both of you will feel this rapport, which also comes across as genuine interest.

It also helps to know how your face looks when you’re not speaking. Some people can appear intense or frown when they concentrate, which others interpret as angry. The pejorative term for this is “resting bitch face.” Once again, give someone eye contact and smile.

Neither of these two approaches is manipulative. You aren’t trying to “trick” or force someone into doing anything. You’re attempting to create a comfortable space for the interaction the two of you will have.

Be aware of your mirror neurons and let them work for you. Create the connection you need to be an effective leader.