It’s well known that copying someone’s body language can make them like you, but new research suggests copying the way someone speaks could also help.
Trying to persuade others doesn’t always come easy. Whether you’re trying to get executive buy-in for a new initiative or convince employees to complete a pulse survey, sometimes it can feel like pulling teeth.
However, science tells us there is an easy way to get people on side: copy them.
‘Mirroring’ is a term usually applied to the unconscious copying of someone’s body language. It’s something we begin doing in infancy and is a vital part of demonstrating empathy. Contemporary research suggests mirroring someone’s body language can be a tool used in persuasion. It taps into similarity bias, our natural desire to favour people who are more like us.
But new research has found the positive effects of mirroring are not limited to body language.
Linguistic mirroring is the act of copying someone’s written or spoken communication style.
Yong H Kim, assistant professor of management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Maxim Sytch, associate professor of management and organisations at the University of Michigan, found evidence of the trend when examining more than 1,000 patent infringement lawsuits from 1990 to 2013. They found that lawyers who used a communication style similar to the judge presiding over the case were more likely to win.
While their initial goal was to test the effects of work and personal connections between lawyers and judges in the US court system, they stumbled upon an even more interesting finding. From their sample they noted the average probability of winning patent cases is 11.5 per cent. However, lawyers who used linguistic mirroring more than doubled their chances of success, to 25 per cent.
Kim explains that like body language mirroring, linguistic mirroring feeds into our similarity biases, making us more amenable to the argument being made because the presenter sounds like us.
“There is scientific evidence that the similarity in linguistic style corresponded to a higher likelihood of friendship formation and persistence of friendship ties,” says Kim.
“What our research of judges and lawyers highlights, however, is that even in a setting where impartiality is of utmost importance and where everyone is subject to the same rules, we see mirroring the evaluator’s linguistic style and scheme confers a powerful advantage.”
When content tone and style is tailored to the person receiving the information, Kim says there is less room for misinterpretation and less effort involved in understanding it.
“The story you are presenting would feel natural to me, as if I wrote it. [This makes] it more persuasive.”
While patent litigation is a very niche application, linguistic mirroring can play an important role in the workplace.
Kim believes it could be particularly useful in remote workplaces. This could be because video calls interfere with many non-verbal communication cues, such as body language.
Watch what they say
When examining the texts, Kim and Sytch used four elements to measure similarities. They included:
- Analytical thinking: how much the author favours data-driven arguments over narrative or informal arguments.
- Clout: the value placed on confidence over humility.
- Authenticity: the persuasiveness of an honest or personal tone rather than a guarded or more formal tone.
- Emotional content: how positive the tone of the argument was.
You could use these same elements to apply linguistic mirroring in the workplace. Here is an example.
Say you’re writing an email to someone, first look at how the recipient tends to make a point in their correspondence to you. Do they use dot points to sum up data? Do they tend to write in a confident manner or are they more humble? Do they ask personal questions or use anecdotes? Is their tone friendly and upbeat? You can use this information to craft a response that’s more likely to engage the recipient.
If your colleague likes to start their email or messages with a summary of their weekend then linguistic mirroring suggests you reply in kind. However, if they prefer to get straight to the point then you should probably drop the description of the new cafe you found.
Kim and Sytch say this approach works for both written and verbal communication. Emails are an easy place to start. According to a study published last year, we already stay awake at night thinking about ‘rude’ emails, so perhaps it’s time we turn that consideration into an advantage.
Linguistic mirroring works best when you know the ‘target’ personally, the researchers say. If you’re presenting to someone you don’t know well, reading material they have written or watching presentations they’ve given can help. However, Kim explains there is a limit to how well linguistic mirroring works when someone is particularly prolific.
“Linguistic mirroring becomes less impactful when there is [a lot] of writings and speeches made by the listener … in our research we find that lawyers’ linguistic mirroring of a particular judge becomes less impactful when there are many publicly available legal opinions written by the judge.”
“The value of such target-specific knowledge is greatest when the knowledge is private,” says Kim.
So next time you’re on a Zoom call take a moment to consider not just what someone is saying but how they say it. You might find it useful when it’s your turn to speak.
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