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Matching and Mirroring (or: Cybernetic Issues in NLP)

One of the fundamental tenets of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is the idea of "matching and mirroring" - the idea that we create rapport between individuals by mirroring aspects of their physiology in ourselves and, because they see someone who looks like them, they're more likely to enter in to a rapportive state with us.

This effect does have some amount of basis and has been studied quite significantly - psychologists tend to call it the "chameleon effect", based on the landmark 1999 study by Chartrand and Bargh.  Their definition:

"The chameleon effect refers to nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one's interaction partners, such that one's behavior passively and unintentionally
changes to match that of others in one's current social environment."

The studies have shown that the effect of mirroring is present across most studies that have been performed - in particular, the Chartrand/Bargh study found significant impacts of mimicry on the rapport set of those studied.   (Although, as Chartrand & Bargh note, some studies (LaFrance) have noted that the effect doesn't exist or depends on other aspects of a relationship between those being studied)

The problem comes when we consider the reason for rapport from an evolutionary perspective - we have evolved rapport and mimicry to facilitate social interaction between humans, not as a one-way process.   That is, when I mirror you, I am unconsciously reproducing your state within me - this is facilitated by the "mirror neurons" (the posterior inferior frontal gyrus and adjacent ventral premotor cortex, as well as the rostral inferior parietal lobule as described by Iacoboni) - we are able to mimic another because we perceive their behavior and, in so doing it, represent it within ourselves.

Note that this is the other half of the cybernetic loop that is edited out in the studies (and much traditional teaching of NLP) - in mimicing another successfully, we unconsciously represent their state within ourselves.    While the Chartrand/Bargh study talked about the target of the mirroring liking the study confederate more when mirrored, there wasn't a corresponding questionaire filled out by said confederate to determine whether they had increased liking for the person being mirrored.   Obviously, this would have had some methodological concerns.  (Note that Chartrand and Bargh noticed the potential issue that this half of the cybernetic loop wasn't being respected, and attempted to control for other behaviors - however, the question of the subtlety of mirroring behaviors on the behalf of the confederate is still open - I'd love to see a FACS coding of some of the samples of the confederates against those of the participants and note facial / micro-expression similarities.)

The state being mimiced is, in effect, dual-sided - that is, the more precisely we replicate the state of the other person, the more effectively we display the chameleon effect.   It is this behavior that Chartrand & Bargh noted in their third experimental condition - that, at an unconscious level, those of us who tend to take other's perspective (which can correlate to but isn't the same as the traditional emotional definition of empathy) more often have a better developed set of strategies for adopting mirrored positions with others.

This, in my opinion, leads to a lot of the problems with the traditional NLP model for learning matching and mirroring.  As Grinder said in "Whispering in the Wind", there are two criteria for the evaluation of a model:

  1. Is it learnable?
  2. Does it lead to the learner producing results congruent with the original source of the model?

While any six-year old can learn the NLP version of matching and mirroring (i.e. "monkey see, monkey do"), it's the second condition that is much more problematic.   Many who attempt to learn to create rapport through traditional means end up with matching/mirroring processes that, rather than create rapport more often, come off with the subtlety of a bad used car salesman.    The reason for this is that we aren't effectively attempting to teach the student of NLP how to mirror states, but only to broadly mirror large parts of behavior - we're not respecting that rapport is a cybernetic process with multiple sides to the loop.  And anybody teaching it from the perspective of behavior/posture isn't respecting the other side of the loop (at least consciously).

In fact, in my own modeling of those who are excellent at creating rapport, it's not their ability to mirror posture or breathing pattern or eye blinks that is most effective - it's the ability to mirror and represent within themselves the state of those around them and to effectively convey that mirrored state (usually at a completely unconscious level).

Grinder also noted this in Whispering, when he stated that calibration is "the most fundamental of all NLP processes".  The person who is most effective at creating rapport with others is the one who most precisely calibrates the state of the other person and, upon representing that state within themselves, unconsciously adopts whatever behaviors are appropriate, regardless of whether they precisely "mimic" the other person.

The student who attempts to learn to create matching and mirroring without understanding how to effectively calibrate (which, using NLP terminology, is akin to an unconscious shift in to second position) doesn't become (in the Chartrand/Bargh terminology) a "high perspective taker", which is one of the fundamental bases of being effective when it comes to matching and mirroring.

That is, the goal in matching and mirroring isn't to replicate behavior - replication of behavior comes naturally when we effectively can adopt and replicate the state of the other person within the interaction.   To attempt to mimic the behavior generally works only in so far as that adopting a matched physiology can assist in replicating state.

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Michael Murray

Michael Murray