Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Road to Influence

This post was a struggle for me because it covers some specific techniques that are a little intense. But it shows a little of the depth of what's possible when you have a serious goal of being able to influence people effectively. I just decided to jump right in rather than ease up to it. The next few posts are a little less extreme and cover topics that might be more accessible and applicable to the less hard-core.

There was a study by some smart people from Boston University Medical School in 1993 where researchers reviewed films of people involved in conversations. They noticed an interesting phenomena in which the people in the conversations began to coordinate their movements. Not in a deliberate way at all, in fact the people exhibiting this behavior were unaware of the effect. The coordination included how they moved fingers and hands, blinks, stance and posture, and head nodding. Digging further they moved on to monitoring the participants using electroencepholographs, a device which monitors brain activity. You have probably heard these devices referred to by the common abbreviation, EEG. When monitored like this they discovered that their brain waves shared common activity spikes. This was in addition to noticing that their heart rates and breathing patterns also began to synchronize. This was just one small piece in a significant body of research to understand how humans develop connections. These kinds of connections are generally referred to as Rapport.

In a general way you can think of rapport as the connection that develops when you are interacting comfortable with someone else. A comfortable interaction usually involves trust and feelings of mutual understanding.

One of the most important aspects of rapport is that you can't force or manufacture rapport. It is a side-effect that emerges when successful connections are made and exercised. Of course, just because you can't fake it doesn't mean you can't increase the possibility of rapport developing during specific interactions.

The Copycat
We all like people who are similar to ourselves. Sure, variety is nice, but sharing commonalities is a basic human motivator. We can put that motivator to work for us when we are seeking to build rapport with others. A common technique for this is called "Mirroring". Like the name implies, this is simply selecting a behavior or action of another person and then repeating that behavior or action. If you can observe the behavior you can mirror it. Common behaviors include:
  • gestures
  • posture
  • vocal pattern including pace, rhythm, and tonality
  • phrasing
  • head and extremity positioning
  • breathing pattern
  • facial expression
  • blink pattern
So let's say you choose to mirror someone who nods. When you observe them nod, delay for a breathe or two and then nod with the same energy and duration. The effect you are going for is for the other person to feel like they are looking in a mirror. If you do this smoothly and with grace it won't be easily noticeable. A good approach to practicing this technique is to mirror people from television, like during interviews or talk shows. Using a one-way situation such as that can allow you to practice being subtle and graceful.

To be very clear, you should always be respectful and subtlety is important. Mirroring is also a two-way street, so you don't want to mirror people who are mentally unbalanced, or who have behavioral issues.

As you become more practiced at mirroring you may notice others using this technique on you. Or you may simply notice that you happen to be in quick rapport with someone. You can break that rapport simply by switching up your behaviors and environment. You can look away, change your vocal rythms, shift your posture dramatically, etc.

If You Lead, They Follow
One of the time-tested techniques for building and confirming rapport is called Pacing and Leading. This is essentially mirroring and then infusing new behaviors into the exchange. A good example of this would be to mirror someone for a while and then when you think you have rapport, do something really different like scratching your ear. If shortly thereafter (less than a minute) they lift their hand to their ear or face or hair, then you have successfully led them. It confirms that you were in rapport and more importantly confirms that you can now influence them at least somewhat.

Going Deeper
There are a great many people who are familiar with rapport-building techniques such as mirroring. One technique that is particularly common is mirroring posture. Because it is so common, there are many people trained to notice the use of this technique. If you are in a situation where someone might pick up on your use of this common technique you can mix things up by using counterpoints. This is essentially substituting your own action as a counterpoint to their action. For example, you can match your finger tapping to their breathing pattern, or your blink pattern to their gestures.

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