Guest post by Jonah Berger (@), Professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. This essay is based on his new book Invisible Influence: The Hidden Factors that Shape Behavior
Who wouldn’t want to be a bit more influential? Whether trying to nail that big interview, convince a client, or get the neighbor to finally trim their hedges, most people would love to be a bit more persuasive. So how do we do that?
Imagine you’re stuck in the throes of a tense housing negotiation. You’ve been searching for months and you finally found a place you like. It’s got a great yard, more than enough space, and a nice open layout that fits your life perfectly. The only challenge is the seller. They’re asking way more than you think the house is worth. You offered a number you thought was fair, they countered with a different amount, and even after a few rounds of back and forth, you’re still far from reaching a deal.
Trust is a key part of any negotiation. Sure, there are specific numbers each side is trying to reach, but rather than fighting over their slice, good negotiators know how to increase the size of the pie. Not just focusing on price, but finding other dimensions where value can be created. Maybe the seller could use an earlier closing date, or needs to get rid of their furniture because they’re moving out of the country. Getting the other side to trust you enough to reveal private information often enables a better outcome to be reached.
But trust is the last thing most people feel in a one-off negotiation. Each side is consumed with extracting the value from the other: how to give up the least information so they can keep the most value for themselves. So how can we build trust more effectively?
Scientists studying successful negotiations found that a simple trick made negotiators five times more successful. Five times more likely to close the deal, even when all seemed lost.
That trick? Mimicking one’s negotiating partner.
If one person rested their chin on their hand, the other did the same. If one person leaned back or forward on their chair, the other imitated that movement. Not blatantly, but discreetly enough that the other person wouldn’t notice.
This might seem silly. After all, why should someone rubbing their face or leaning back in their chair change whether people reach a deal? But it did. People who mimicked their partner’s mannerisms were five times as likely to find a successful outcome.
And it’s not just negotiators. Waiters and waitresses who mimic their clients’ orders get 70% higher tips. In interviews, mimicry helps people feel more comfortable and perform better. And in a dating context, people who mimicked one another more were more likely to turn a first date into a second one.
Mimicry facilitates social interactions because it generates rapport. Just like finding out a work colleague grew up in the same small town thousands of miles away, when someone has the same accent, or loves the same indie brand, we feel an affinity or bond. Consequently, when we imitate someone, or behave similarly, that person starts to infer that we have things in common or are part of the same tribe. Rather than seeing someone as a competitor, or a stranger, mimicry makes people feel more interconnected. Closer and more interdependent. All without even realizing it.
Interviewing for a job, starting a tough negotiation, or just trying to turn a first date into a second? Imitating the language, behavior, or facial expressions of others can increase success. Mimicry increases liking, trust, and affiliation. So don’t just listen; emulate. If an interviewer leans back on their chair and crosses their legs, do the same. If a client starts emails with “Hey” instead of “Dear,” adopt that language. Subtle shifts can deepen social bonds, turn strangers to friends, and make acquaintances into allies.