Empathize By Mirroring Body Language

May 26 2012

Building a genuine relationship with another person depends on seeing the world from another person’s perspective. In relationships it’s only when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes that you begin to develop an honest connection. Discovering what people want, in the words of start-up investor Paul Graham, “deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view, instead of thinking only of yourself.” Likewise, in relationships, it’s only when you truly put yourself in the other person’s shoes that you begin to develop an honest connection. This is tough. Whereas entrepreneurs have some ways of measuring how well they understand their customers by ultimately watching sales rise and fall, in day-to-day social life there’s no such immediate feedback. Compounding that challenge is the fact that the basic way we perceive and process the external world makes us feel like everything revolves around us. The late writer David Foster Wallace once noted this literal truth: “There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor.”

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes his experience watching rugby in a bar in Australia. After a particularly hard hit, everyone around him grabbed their head in the same place the rugby player had been hit. He describes the phenomenon: 

We had all responded physically, involuntarily (and quite dramatically), as though we ourselves had been hit. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that can actually sense and then mimic the feelings, actions, and physical sensations of another person. Let’s say a person is pricked by a needle. The neurons in the pain center of his or her brain will immediately light up, which should come as no surprise. But what is a surprise is that when that same person sees someone else receive a needle prick, this same set of neurons lights up, just as though he himself had been pricked. In other words, he actually feels a hint of the pain of a needle prick, even though he himself hasn’t been touched. This is why smiles become contagious and why babies automatically mimic the funny faces their parents make. 

Mirroring the other person’s body language is a way to take advantage of one’s brain circuitry to help us empathize with someone and moves us closer to seeing the world from their point of view.