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Why ‘matching and mirroring’ doesn’t work in sales

Why ‘matching and mirroring’ doesn’t work in sales

In my callow youth, or to be more exact – my callow middle age, I studied neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) extensively. Much of it was very interesting, some of it was quite useful.

Building rapport through matching and mirroring wasn’t at all useful, but it took me a while (and a couple of embarrassing “are you imitating me?” episodes) to work that out. But once I realised this, I discovered a much more effective rapport-building and sales-enhancing secret.

In the unlikely event you don’t know what ‘matching and mirroring’ is, here’s a short synopsis:

The developers of NLP observed that when people were in rapport, they tended to mirror each other in subtle ways – body position, breathing rates, speech patterns, and so on. They reasoned that by matching and mirroring these when communicating with someone, the other person would pick up the unconscious signal “this person is like me” and it would build rapport.

The world is now full of NLP books recommending this approach (I have a dozen or so myself) and salespeople who focus on mirroring body positions and matching speech rates when they meet a prospect. I have bad news for them – not only does it seem manipulative (because it is) but it doesn’t work, particularly in sales.

NLP’s problem is that it mistakes cause for effect. Just because two people who are in rapport tend to match each other, doesn’t mean the converse applies. But what’s worse for a salesperson is that when you’re focused on body positions, breathing rates and so on, you aren’t focused on what really matters – the prospect (not to mention the challenges of trying to match and mirror more than one person at once).

If you want to build genuine rapport with a prospect, here’s a “technique” that does work.

1. Be truly, madly, deeply interested in them – what their business problem is, how it affects them, what the details are, how it manifests itself, what they’ve tried so far.

2. Be a detective and ask as many questions as you need in order to make sure you understand their perspective in depth.

3. Don’t be afraid to look stupid – keep questioning until you’re sure you’ve got it from their perspective.

4. Take notes as you go. This helps you to focus and to be sure you’ve got everything, as well as an aide-memoire.

5. Don’t jump into proposing solutions – focus on understanding the issue first. Your products and services can wait.

6. The next day, write a synopsis and send it to the prospect saying this is your recollection of what they said, but you want to be absolutely sure you got it right, so can they please check it and let you know if you’ve misunderstood or missed anything.

If you do that, and if you really, really care about understanding what a prospect’s issues are from their perspective, don’t be surprised if, at the end of the meeting, your body position mirrors theirs and your voice and breathing match theirs.

It may or it may not, but either way, don’t mistake cause for effect.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.



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