©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

The Approach/Withdrawal Continuum—believed to be the fastest and nearly automatic decision the brain makes—postulates that people tend to approach (move toward) individuals, environments, situations, or things when they feel comfortable.

Conversely, they tend to avoid (or withdraw from) individuals, environments, situations, or things when they feel uncomfortable. Acknowledging another’s sensory preference and making provision for it can help him/her to feel more comfortable.


I like it! I want more!

I don’t like it! I want out of here!

The concept of mirroring involves becoming aware of the sensory signals from other individuals and feeding back similar sensory signals in a discrete and effective manner to help them feel comfortable. Following are examples of three types of mirroring: verbal, body, and content.

1. Verbal (Auditory) Mirroring

When you meet an individual for the first time listen to the type of words he/she uses and reply using similar sensory words.

• The person says, “That looks clear to me.” Those words suggest a visual preference. If you reply with “I’m glad it sounds good (auditory system) or “I’m glad you have ahandle on the concept” (kinesthetic system), you may come across as hailing from a different planet. Try replying in the same sensory preference, “I’m glad you see…” and so on. 

  • You are presenting a business proposal and a client interrupts to say, “I don’t see how this will help me” (visual) you might reply, “I respect your view. If you’ll allow me to show you the rest of my presentation, however, I believe you’ll see how this will benefit you.” 
  • Suppose the client says, “This doesn’t sound (auditory) right to me.” You could say, “It may not soundclear as yet, but if you will listen a bit longer you’ll hear how this can be of benefit to you.”
  • If the client says, “I can’t seem to get a handle (kinesthetic) on what you are saying,” you could answer, “I can appreciate your wanting to get agrasp on this state-of-the-art concept. I believe I can put this all together so you can recognize how this idea fits with your plans.”

These same principles apply whether you’re communicating in person, by letter, by telephone, or by email. Pay attention to the type of sensory words the individual is using and mirror, reply in kind. You may be amazed at how this simple strategy can enhance communication.

2. Body (Kinesthetic and Visual) Mirroring

Body mirroring is another way of helping people to feel comfortable. It involves matching your gestures, body positions, use of space, and way of moving to those of the other individual. People tend to be more comfortable in the presence of individuals they sense are “like them.” You don’t exactly copy the other person’s every gesture or body position but you exhibit similar behaviors.

If the person smiles, smile in return. If the individual sheds tears, exhibit a facial expression that indicates you empathize with those types of feelings. If his/her rate of speech is slow, avoid replying in rapid-fire sequences. If the person’s brow furrows, furrow yours. If the individual nods or crosses arms, legs, consider eventually making similar gestures. If the other person uses large arm gestures and this isn’t your style, simply exhibit smaller motions. If the person moves back from you physically, perhaps he/she has larger space requirements. Pay attention and avoid violating another’s personal space.

Body mirroring can also be enhanced by appropriate use of the eyes. In this culture, most of us have been socialized not to stare at others. However, appropriate eye contact may be the psychologically equivalent to direct touch (e.g., shaking hands, patting on the shoulder). It can help to establish a powerful connection between two people. Think about your own response to someone who looks you directly in the eye versus one who looks everywhere but at you. Look directly into the other person’s eyes. This can be especially important if they have a visual sensory preference.

3. Content Mirroring

Content mirroring is a way in which to create rapport with someone else, a state of sympathetic harmony. Paraphrase what you heard said and then feed it back using words that mirror his/her sensory preference. Match your voice volume and speed of speech to that of the other person. It’s all about helping to reduce stress levels and enhancing comfort levels.

Listen actively. That’s very different from simply hearing. Avoid allowing your mind to wander or start thinking about what you will say next. This can cause you to miss critical portions of the conversation. Pay attention to the big picture, not just the details.

If the person says, “I started feeling bad about a month ago after my cat died,” the critical piece of information may revolve around grief and loss related to the cat. Ask open-ended questions rather than those that can be answered with just a yes or a no. As the individual responds, exhibit behaviors that send a signal that you are truly listening (e.g., nod, smile, raise an eyebrow).