mirroring on sunglasses

Power of the Social Mirror: How Mirroring can Improve Your Relationship

Have you ever been walking down the street and heard a joke or saw a funny meme on your phone? When you get off the phone and continue strolling, you might notice strangers smiling at you. This is an example of social mirroring in action.

“Why is she smiling at me like that?,” you may wonder. The reason that strangers are smiling at you is because you are smiling at them. Even if you are not purposely smiling at them – you are only smiling to yourself because of the joke you just enjoyed – people see your smile and unconsciously smile back at you. In this way, mirroring perpetuates a cycle of positivity.

Just like a mirror reflects the face that looks at it, so too social mirroring involves one person reflecting the “face” of another person. 

Social Mirroring

The phenomenon of social mirroring is first described in the Torah. King Solomon, known for his deep wisdom, tells us, “As in water, a face reflects a face, so is the heart of a man to a man” (Proverbs 27:19). Just like when you gaze into a body of water, the face you show the water is reflected back at you, so too when you feel and act a certain way to another person – that person will reflect your attitude and behavior towards him. This important lesson teaches us that, for better or for worse, you can influence another person through your own way of interacting with him.

There are two general categories of mirroring: conscious mirroring and unconscious mirroring. Understanding how mirroring works can help you harness the power of mirroring to improve any of your relationships.

Conscious Mirroring

One type of mirroring is when you consciously, subtly modify your own behavior, gestures, facial expressions, posture, and vocal tone to mirror those of another person. People who are great at connecting with others and are able to influence other people to adopt their point of view, often do so by consciously mirroring the people with whom they interact.

I have a friend named Tehilla who is amazing at this type of mirroring. Tehilla makes friends extraordinarily easily. In fact, almost every one of her friends thinks that she is Tehilla’s best friend. I have always marveled at Tehilla’s ability to manage people with difficult personalities. Their toughness and stubbornness somehow melts away under Tehilla’s magic spell. How is Tehilla able to forge such strong emotional connections and positively influence others? 

If you carefully observe Tehilla, you will notice that she adapts her own voice and body language to mirror another person in a one-on-one interaction. Sometimes, we joke that her speech often temporarily reflects the accent of the person she was just spending time with. If she was recently hanging out with a British friend, she will sound a bit British. 

In an almost chameleon-like way, Tehilla adapts herself to resemble the outwards nonverbal behavior of her friend. This conscious mirroring helps her become completely emotionally attuned to a person with whom she interacts. Tehilla’s way of relating to people is a masterful demonstration of conscious mirroring.

Unconscious Mirroring

Unconscious mirroring or “social mirroring” is when you act in a certain way and other people around you unconsciously mirror your behavior. The person imitates your behavior, speech or attitude without even realizing it. Mirroring is especially common among close friends and family members.

One example of social mirroring is when a couple gets married and their friends and family notice that they start to look like each other. Why is that? Unconsciously, a couple who is attuned to each other will begin to mirror each other’s facial expressions, gestures and body language. The more a couple mirrors each other’s behavior, the more they seem to resemble one another.

Another easy way to understand mirroring is to look outside your window and notice how couples or friends stroll down the street together. A couple who is attuned to one another will unconsciously modify their strides so that their feet walk at the exact same pace, without paying close attention to it. This is unconscious mirroring in action.

Mirroring in Your Relationship

You can use conscious mirroring in your relationship to cause unconscious mirroring in your partner. If you consciously mirror your partner in a positive way, s/he will unconsciously mirror your behavior and this will create a cycle of positive of your relationship than can turn your relationship around! This dynamic applies to many kinds of relationships such as couples, parent-child, friends, and co-workers.

Let’s examine how mirroring can improve a marriage, for example:

True Story: A Marriage on the Rocks

After several years of attempting to solve her marriage problems, Tamara was almost ready to throw in the towel. “I gave my husband Eli a lot of time to work on our marriage, but he simply refuses to change,” she explained. Tamara described how she regularly told Eli how much she loved him and admired him.At the same time, she gently gave him constructive feedback about the things he did that bothered her. He listened respectfully, but did not behave differently. It seemed like Eli had become a different person than the man she had married.

One of the things that bothered Tamara was that he did not spend enough time with her, and he did not listen to her when they had a conversation. This really surprised her. In fact, when she dated Eli, she thought that they had great conversations and that he was a really kind, attentive, and responsible person. Somehow, after they got married, their conversations went downhill. After the birth of their first child, it hit rock bottom. Eli simply avoided Tamara and spent long hours away from home. Tamara was desperate to improve her three year old marriage.

Unfortunately, Eli was unwilling to go for therapy with Tamara. He felt that Tamara was being too critical of him and that she was expecting too much from him. Eli told Tamara that maybe they were just not right for each other.

Tamara felt hurt and confused. If Eli did not want to change, was her situation hopeless? What could she do to shift her marriage in a positive direction?

Applying Mirroring to Marriage

One strategy that Tamara could use to create a cycle of positivity in her marriage is mirroring her husband Eli. Mirroring works in two directions to create a cycle of positivity and increase the connection between two people.

Step 1 – Build Empathy through Conscious Mirroring

If you are a spouse who would like to improve your marriage, you can strategically mirror your partner to strengthen your relationship even if your spouse is not ready to work with you on your relationship. Consciously mirroring your spouse’s mood and feelings promotes your feeling empathy towards your spouse and increases your spouse’s emotional connection to you.

Conscious mirroring does not mean copying all of your spouse’s negative facial expressions and gestures. It means that you become attuned to your spouse’s attitude and feelings. When you consciously mirror your spouse, you temporarily adapt your own attitude and feelings to mirror your spouse’s so that you can empathize with and understand your spouse. 

Let’s go back to Tamara and Eli’s relationship. Imagine the following scenario:

Tamara feels upbeat and excited about her day and she looks forward to sharing her accomplishments at work with Eli. She looks forward to greeting him when he comes home with a big smile and an excited mood. Yet, what if Eli comes home feeling frustrated and anxious about his day at work?

If Tamara overlooks Eli’s facial expression, body language and tone of voice that indicates he is feeling stressed, and dives into her happy monologue about her day, then she will emotionally alienate Eli. In the moment, Eli will find it challenging to listen to her positive, upbeat attitude. He will not feel that Tamara understands him or has the ability to understand how he feels. Eli will want to retreat into his own shell and find a private place to mull over his thoughts on his own.

What can Tamara do to connect with Eli in this situation?

Tamara can strategically mirror Eli’s mood by toning down her excitement and lowering her outwards signs of happiness until she is more in sync with Eli’s mood. She can ask Eli about his day and make an effort to listen to his feelings about his experiences. She can empathize with Eli and let him know that she understands why he feels the way he does.

Empathizing with Eli does not mean that Tamara has to personally feel the same way as Eli or admit that she would also feel the way he feels if she were in his shoes. When you empathize with your partner, you do not have to agree with your partner’s feelings. Empathizing means feeling with your partner. Essentially, empathy is about validating your partner’s feelings. Allow him to feel the way he feels and expressing that you understand him.

Mirroring Eli in this way will increase Tamara’s empathy for Eli and strengthen Eli’s emotional connection to her. Eli is also going to be more likely to turn to Tamara for understanding and empathy when he comes home in the future. As Eli experiences Tamara’s empathy and validation towards him, he might seek to spend more quality time with her and share deep conversation so that he can experience her validation even more.

This benefit of mirroring not only involves Tamara mirroring Eli to increase his emotional connection to her. An additional benefit of her mirroring Eli is that Tamara actually deepens her understanding of Eli’s feelings. This increases her emotional connection to Eli as well.

But how can strategic mirroring by Tamara also affect how Eli behaves towards Tamara? How can Tamara use mirroring to influence Eli to behave as she wishes he would?

Step 2 – Promote Unconscious Mirroring through Modeling

Another benefit of mirroring is that it also works in the opposite direction. When she mirrors Eli’s attitude and feelings, Tamara demonstrates to Eli how to empathize and validate. The pleasure of feeling validated will improve Eli’s attitude towards Tamara, and her modeling of how to empathize and validate will gradually influence Eli to listen more attentively to Tamara.

For example, when Eli comes home from work and Tamara listens nonjudgmentally to his feelings about his day, Eli unconsciously learns from Tamara how to listen to your partner. Each time Tamara puts in the effort to truly understand his feelings, she models effective listening for Eli. 

Over time, Eli will unconsciously begin to mirror Tamara’s behavior towards him and improve how he listens to Tamara. Tamara’s modeling of how to listen to your partner can help Eli learn how to listen in an emotionally receptive way to Tamara. 

Social Learning Takes Time

Unconscious mirroring of behavior, also known as “social learning” is more complex than typical social mirroring, which usually involves unconscious mirroring of gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Depending on how adept your partner is on picking up social cues, you may need to supplement your modeling by giving your partner gentle guidance of what you would like your partner to do for you.

If your partner does not immediately treat you the way you treat your partner, be patient. It may take time for your partner to learn how to listen to you in the same way that you listen to your partner. 

Celebrate mini-victories in your relationship such as the shift in your partner’s attitude towards you. You will probably notice that your partner will unconsciously mirror your accepting and understanding attitude towards him and he will desire to connect with her more. As King Solomon pointed out, just like your heart shows itself to your partner, so too your partner’s heart will reflect yours. Your partner will gradually unconsciously mirror your accepting and understanding attitude towards him and he will desire to connect with you more.

Scientific Research on Benefits of Mirroring

The benefits of mirroring in marriage are based on scientific research in the area of human development and social psychology. Scientists have discovered many interesting benefits of social mirroring through numerous studies over the past three decades. Mirroring has been found to help people empathize and feel a greater emotional connection with each other. 

Unconscious Mirroring and Human Development

One of the first beneficial examples of mirroring occurs with babies in infancy. Babies learn the meaning of facial expressions as they imitate the expressions of their caregivers. For example, a mother smiles at her baby and her baby smiles back. Along with the mother’s smile, the baby feels the mother’s positivity and love. The baby learns to associate certain emotions with specific facial expressions, verbal expressions, and tone of voice. 

On a deeper level, as the mother and her baby imitate each other’s behaviors and facial expressions, they also strengthen their emotional connection. When the baby smiles at the mother, and the mother returns her smile, the baby feels her mother’s approval and feels validated. So too, when the mother smiles and her baby smiles back, mirroring makes the mother feel understood by her baby. In this way, mirroring builds the emotional connection between parent and child.

Conscious Mirroring and Human Persuasion

The benefits of mirroring apply to adult relationships as well. Scientific research in many areas has demonstrated that people feel emotionally connected to people who mirror their facial expressions, ways of speaking, and body language. For example, studies have found that when you apply for a job and mirror the interviewer’s tone, eye contact and facial expressions, the interviewer is more likely to feel connected to you and grant you the job. 

Similarly, studies on negotiation and persuasion, have demonstrated that when a person strategically mirrors the nonverbal behavior of the person he is negotiating with, it establishes a rapport and a feeling of connection between them. This helps them understand each other better and increases the likelihood of negotiating towards a favorable outcome. 

Mirroring in Your Relationships

Mirroring is clearly a powerful force in human relationships. Mirroring can be applied to marriage to help you strengthen your rapport with your spouse. In parenting, mirroring can increase empathy for your child and enhance your emotional connection towards one another. It can also help you create relationships and emotionally connect to colleagues and supervisors at work. 

Mirroring is so powerful you will notice immediate results even if your partner is not ready to actively work on your relationship. Why not try mirroring in your relationship to create your own cycle of increasing empathy and emotional connection with your partner?

Have you noticed yourself unconsciously mirroring someone? Have you tried conscious mirroring and enjoyed great results? Please describe your experiences to help spread the wealth to others by sharing your comment below.