When people spend time together, they often begin to unconsciously mimic each other’s nonverbal behaviors, such as their body language and facial expressions, and verbal behaviors, including words, expressions, and phrases. While being deliberately mimicked for laughs is annoying (ask any parent of young kids), people actually tend to like those who subtly mimic them better than those who don’t, researchers have found.
Mimicry can also have benefits in negotiation. Individuals who intentionally mimicked their counterpart during a negotiation reached better outcomes than those who did not, University of North Carolina professor William Maddux and his colleagues found in a 2008 study. Mimicking the language of one’s counterpart also improved people’s outcomes during an online negotiation, a research team led by David A. Huffaker of Northwestern University discovered.
Some words have an especially positive effect on negotiations when mimicked, evidence suggests. Positive emotional language, such as “happy” or “joyful,” have been found to improve trust between negotiators and individual gain when mimicked, as have assent words, such as “yes” and “agree,” and words that indicate cognitive processing, including “insight,” “cause,” or “know.” On the flip side, mimicry of other words can be detrimental in negotiations, including negative emotional words (“angry,” “sad”).
Some words have an especially positive effect on negotiations when mimicked.
In a new study of mimicry in negotiation, Kate Muir of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and her team paired up participants for a simulated job negotiation with a list of eight issues to be negotiated, such as salary, location, and vacation time. In some pairs of candidates and recruiters, both participants were instructed to try to mimic the words their counterpart used without losing focus; in other pairs, one person was instructed to mimic and the other was not; and in other pairs, neither person was instructed to mimic. The negotiation was conducted via an online instant-messaging program.
Dyads in which both participants mimicked achieved the highest joint and individual outcomes, followed by dyads where one party mimicked; dyads in which neither mimicked performed the worst. Mimicry also built rapport between negotiators.
Mimicry of two particular categories of words was found to contribute to joint gain: interrogatives—or question words, such as “how,” “when,” and “what”—and assent words, such as “agree” or “OK.” The value of mimicking question words makes intuitive sense. When one party follows up the other party’s question with a question of their own, they set themselves up to share information that can help them create value through tradeoffs across issues.
Overall, research on mimicry in negotiation suggests that when your counterpart uses question words, as well as words expressing agreement or positive emotions, you might make a deliberate effort to echo them to promote a curious and upbeat conversation. Use linguistic mimicry judiciously, though, so the technique doesn’t call attention to itself or distract you from the substance of the negotiation.
Resource: “When Asking ‘What’ and ‘How’ Helps You Win: Mimicry of Interrogative Terms Facilitates Successful Online Negotiations,” by Kate Muir, Adam Joinson, Emily Collins, Rachel Cotterill, and Nigel Dewdney. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2020.