In his book To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink writes about the importance of attunement as part of selling, whether the selling is formal (actual sales) or less formal (influence and persuasion). One approach to attunement is matching. By subtly matching body language, tone of voice and choice of words, you can create greater attunement and more trust with people you talk to. Dan points out—and there is research behind this—that people’s mannerisms automatically attune when they feel connected to each other.
If you watch friends talking over coffee, you’ll see similar movements happening at the same time. Similarly, studies have shown that if one person at a table reaches for a glass of water, it’s more likely that someone else will also reach for a glass of water—if not at the same moment, then soon after. We match each other because we are social animals, and it’s one of the ways that we stay in sync.
I often talk to clients about matching to build trust and communicate more effectively with diverse stakeholders. You can match in three main ways:
1. Body language. Rather than copying the other person exactly, mirror the spirit of what they’re doing in subtle ways. If you’re talking with someone who’s sitting back in their chair with their arms crossed, you don’t want to lean forward and put your elbows on the table. Instead, you want to be sitting back.
2. Vocal inflection. The idea is similar to body language. If someone talks quickly, then you talk more quickly. If someone talks more slowly, you match that pace. If they’re louder, you get louder. If they’re softer, you get softer.
3. Word choice. If the person you are talking with uses a lot of technical terminology, then you add more technical terms to your speech. If they are more casual and informal in their word choice, then you match that. As with body language and inflection, matching word choice technique is subtle; so you don’t want to overdo it.
Matching does have limits. If you match someone and they detect it, it can backfire, and actually erode trust because they may feel manipulated. To avoid this: (1) match subtly, by matching the overall energy of the person rather than specifically mimicking detailed behaviors, and (2) monitor your intent. If your intention is to match for the sake of connecting and more fully being of service to the other person, they will feel that. By contrast, if you use matching as a “technique” mainly to help you get what you want, they will feel that as well.
When I talk to clients about matching, I use this example: if you were going to another country, say Japan, you would automatically adopt some of the local mannerisms and culture in order to fit in better and to be more trusted. You might bow when you meet someone. Or when you hand them a business card, you might do it with two hands. Additionally, you might make less eye contact than you would in the U.S.
And all of these changes would be subtle. You wouldn’t copy exactly what Japanese people do. Instead, as a foreigner or a visitor to their culture, you would make an effort to match some of their ways of being in order to fit in more and so it would be easier for them to communicate with you. And you would maintain your own authenticity in the process.
In the same way, when you walk into someone’s office to have a meeting with them, they have their own culture. In fact, every individual has their own distinct culture. By partially matching their body language, tone of voice and language, you are subtly matching their unique culture of one, and it will make it a little easier for them to communicate with you and trust you.