What To Know About the Communication Practice Called Mirroring—Including When It Can Actually Make Your Comms Worse

Photo: Getty Images/ urbazon
Mirroring may sound like a reference to Snow White, or a design choice that makes a fun house out of your real home. But in actuality, the mirroring communication technique is a practice that can create closeness.

To put it simply, mirroring means matching an individual's verbal and non-verbal cues during an interaction, says licensed psychologist Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, a mental health provider with the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. Typically, it involves reflecting someone’s words, tone of voice, body language, or positions, he explains. “If you’ve ever seen two people in conversation sitting in the same position, crossing or uncrossing their arms or legs at the same time, leaning in toward each other, or even speaking in the same tone of voice, you’ve witnessed mirroring,” says Dr. de la Rosa.

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Far more than a game of copycat, however, mirroring is a powerful communication technique that can make people feel really connected to one another. “It can create a sense of immediate intimacy,” says Dr. de la Rosa. But because of this, it can also create a false sense of security if you’re not careful.

Exactly how mirroring can fast-track closeness

It’s basic human nature to be drawn to that which is similar, and mirroring communicates similarity. When someone uses the same turns of phrases, accent, or gestures as you, it signals to your brain that you are alike, explains Dr. de la Rosa. In one study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that how similar the two people are, plays a significant role in the future of that relationship.

Despite the popular adage that opposites attract, researchers found that the desire to find like-minded folks is hardwired into us. “From the very first moments of awkward banter, how similar the two people are is immediately and powerfully playing a role in future interactions. Will they connect? Or walk away? Those early recognitions of similarity are really consequential in that decision," said Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College and a lead author on the study, in a press release.

Further, mirroring can be used to show that someone is listening to you, rather than just hearing you—and vice versa—says psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist Lee Phillips, PhD. During disagreements, this can be especially useful. When you re-use the words your partner just used to share their point of view, you can reveal that you really understand what they are saying “rather than just thinking about your next point in your argument” he says. In practice, this can decrease both people’s reactivity and replace it with a sense of a common goal: To get to the other side of the argument as a team.

These are all good things for fostering healthy relationships and forms of communication with someone you care about. But mirroring, like any powerful tool, can be used for good or evil, depending on how you deploy it, so it’s important to understand the downsides of mirroring to avoid being taken advantage of by the technique.

When the mirroring communication technique can backfire

Indeed, mirroring can create closeness—but it can also create the illusion of closeness. “Mirroring is a surface behavior,” explains licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C. So while it can reveal someone’s empathetic and compassionate intentions, “it can also be used to cloak more sinister intentions,” she says.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths often actively mirror their victims' communication style in order to manipulate them, according to Phillips. When they are mirroring you, they are doing so to gain your trust, and learn more about your identity and vulnerabilities, so they can use it against you for their own gain down the line,” he says.

Identifying well- vs. mal-intentioned mirroring

It can be challenging to determine when someone is using mirroring to manipulate us versus when they want to deepen our connection with it, according Dr. de la Rosa. “People who use mirroring in this malicious way are often good at it and may trick others into believing that they genuinely care,” he says.

That said it’s not impossible to spot the different—it just requires a strong gut instinct, as well as both self and relational awareness. Taking the below into account can help you decipher the underlying intentions of the action.

1. Well-intentioned mirroring can look someone providing you a service speaking your language (verbal or non)

If you have hired someone for a job (in exchange for money), there is a good chance that they are intentionally mirroring you. “Therapists, for example, often use mirroring with their clients in psychotherapy to build rapport and maintain a connection throughout therapy,” says Dr. de la Rosa. Here, he says, they are intentionally mirroring you to help you feel comfortable enough to share what you need to share in order to give you an effective therapeutic experience.

Waitstaff and sales folks will often also copycat your gestures and intonations in order to build rapport. Here, the goal is to create a relationship with you that is mutually beneficial. After all, you’ll leave the interaction feeling warm and fuzzy and they’ll leave with a hearty tip.

Generally speaking, this type of mirroring is well intentioned and not something to worry about, according to Dr. de la Rosa. Of course, there are times when sales people use mirroring in a way that feels, on a gut level, disingenuous — but more on that below.

2. Mal-intentioned mirroring will set off your spidey senses

Typically, when mirroring is coming from a pure place, you feel that you are in-sync with the other person, McBain says. However, when it’s coming from a less well-meaning source, you’ll often feel like there is a disconnect.

“If something is feeling 'off' to you, you may be reading the other person’s non-verbal cues and picking up on feelings, emotions, or intentions that are not heart-centered, caring, compassionate, or empathetic,” she says. If that's the case, it could be a sign that their intent could be malicious or self-serving.

For example, say an interaction you have with an acquaintance at a cocktail party felt phony despite how closely you were talking, chances are it was phony! Similarly, if you feel like a pushy car salesman is trying too hard to connect with you, it could be because they are using mirroring tactics to make you want to buy something from them.

Your move: Ask yourself if—in the deepest part of your body— he interactions feel aligned, natural, and genuine. If not, listen to that inner-knowing and respond accordingly.

3. Things feeling too similar is typically a sign of suspect mirroring

Ask yourself: On a scale of one to 10 how much mirroring is happening here, exactly? “A sign that someone is using mirroring for evil is that they over-do it,” says Phillips. Like, wayyy over do it.

“When a narcissist is mirroring you, they go over the top with it,” he adds. For instance, they will mimic your body language and expressions and gestures, he says. According to him, someone who is not narcissistic, conversely, usually will only mirror one or two of these aspects. In other words, people who are mirroring out of a genuine place are more subtle.

If you feel like the person is literally your image’s mirror and mouth’s parrot, this person could be trying to intentionally manipulate you.

4. If it feels too good to be true, it probably is

Don’t hate the messenger, but beware of any situation that feels like you've met a carbon copy of yourself. Take pause if you find yourself, or the other person, saying things like:

  • I’ve never met anyone who XYZ like me before…
  • Oh my gosh are you my soulmate (or soul-sister)?
  • Wow, we are so similar!
  • I feel like I’ve known you in my whole life.

In particular, if you (or they) are saying them early on into your relationship. It is common for psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists to use phrases like this soon after you just met to hook you as a form of love bombing, says Phillips. “These phrases may suggest that they are similar to you and care about you, but they aren’t and they don’t.”

No doubt, it’s possible that you have met your soulmate! But if you can, try to slow down, learn more, and find out the truth about the person by meeting and talking to their friends and loved ones, asking them questions, and observing how they are when nobody's watching. After all, your true soulmate won’t be put off by you asking to dial the intensity back a notch...or three.

Just to be clear, mirroring is a powerful communication practice that can help you show someone you're listening and care, but because of it's ability to make us feel connected to another person, it's important to be aware that some people will use this technique for ulterior motives. Imitation, after all, is the most sincere form of flattery—and flattery is a subtle form of emotional manipulation.

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