Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Do we all remember the times we walked into a meeting room and instantly feeling the vibes – serious, uptight, relaxed, energetic and so on? Do we remember speaking to someone on the telephone and understanding exactly whether the person is happy, sad, frustrated or angry? More recently, have we all been in a Zoom meeting and “inferred” who among the new people we ‘met’ is more approachable than the others?
For each of the above conclusions, do we ever think about the process of how we reached there? We don’t. They are largely intuitive. In fact, we don’t even realise we are making any such conclusions. Welcome to the world of mirror neurons! These neurons are the seat of our vicarious experiences – but more importantly, they are also at the centre stage of all our learning and communication. It is through mirror neurons that our brain simulates an action just by watching it and also, triggers a signal for the body to actually imitate the action. What’s more, studies have found that mirror neurons are activated in infants as early as when they are 41 minutes old!
Mirror neurons can be immensely powerful in the way we communicate and act in the world. They fire intuitively – which means there is hardly any ‘reasoning’ involved when they are activated. This implies that we are capable of mirroring empathy as much as we are capable of mirroring hostility. And that brings us to today’s proverb – diva nal diva balda – which in Punjabi means it takes a lamp to light a lamp. Indeed, in the world of mirror neurons, to every action there is almost an equal and similar reaction. Now, whether the lamp quells darkness or spreads raging wildfires decides the outcome of mirroring.
diva nal diva balda (Punjabi) - it takes a lamp to light a lamp
In the world of business communication, especially when communicating across cultures, mirroring can be an effective tool to establish rapport, build credibility and demonstrate empathy. For example, in a meeting where everyone’s first language is not English, a simple act of mirroring the pace of speech – slowing it down when required or articulating words carefully – can go a long way in making others feel comfortable. In her book ‘Cross Cultural Management’, Mai Nguyen Phuong-Mai also mentions that when one is unsure of gestures, actions or even ‘etiquette’ when communicating across cultures, mirroring can be an effective way to avoid ‘mistakes’. She gives the example of a handshake – when unsure of whether the person we are interacting with prefers a firm or a soft handshake, it is a good idea to mirror the strength of the handshake instead of imposing one’s own assumption.
There is a flip side to this story. Mirroring is intuitive. Therefore, we are capable of imitating aggression as spontaneously as we imitate empathy. Think of communicating on social media as an example – it does not even require a troll – one marginally hostile comment or a disagreement and it sets us off. The thing with mirroring aggression is that it has the nefarious potential of becoming an endless loop. The lamp we light can also burn bridges. Therefore, we must learn to break an aggression loop. Even being aware, that we are acting on ‘impulse’ to mirror aggression can go a long way in curbing hostile responses to hostile situations. Keeping the end goal in mind, a common goal that we want to reach as an outcome of an interaction, could be another effective way in breaking a vicious cycle of aggressive communication.
“There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” -- Edith Wharton
As teachers, trainers, facilitators, we have an important role to play. Our students, learners, audience do not only learn the subject matter of our lessons by mirroring, but they are also most likely to pick up even the way we communicate, the language we use, the vibes in a classroom (whether virtual or face to face) and so on. Our brain works on precedence – that is, the way we react in any given situation is a coefficient of how we have reacted in the past or how we have seen someone else react in the past in a similar situation. As trainers, we are in a powerful position to set precedence which will make workplaces seats of empathy instead of being hotbeds of hostility. The American novelist Edith Wharton said, “There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” The lamp we light today will be reflected tomorrow – the example we set matters.
Ishita Ray is a Learning Consultant with more than a decade of experience in academia and corporate sectors. She has formerly worked at Tata Consultancy Services, where she designed learning content and strategy for online and face to face programs in Business and Intercultural Communication. She believes in encouraging dialogue and reflection to create inclusive and accessible learning spaces for every individual. She can be reached on LinkedIn.