In the 1980s, Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti was studying the brain functions of macaque monkeys when he made a discovery that drastically expanded the field of neuroscience. Rizzolatti observed that when the monkeys reached for food, certain neurons in their premotor cortex were fired. Later, one of the researchers went to grab his own lunch in front of the monkeys only to find that the very same neurons in the monkeys’ brains were triggered again, despite the fact that the animals themselves were not carrying out the action.
Rizzolatti had discovered mirror neurons, a class of brain cells that are fired when we perform a specific task, but also when we observe someone else perform that same action. These neurons are the reason we might wince when we see someone get hurt, or why we naturally feel happy when we see someone else smile. Essentially, mirror neurons connect us effortlessly to other people, allowing us to instinctively understand their feelings and intentions.
Mirror neurons play a key role in the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) technique of rapport – the ability to subconsciously foster trust and understanding with others. Rapport involves subtly matching the person with whom you are talking to so that the mirror neurons are activated. This technique sees practitioners mirror the body language of the other person – the tilt of their head, the way they are sitting or the placement of their hands. Rebel entrepreneurs can match the vocal patterns of the other – their pace, volume, or the type of words they use. These techniques are a simple but efficient way to establish rapport by creating empathy and understanding. The caveat, however, is that matching must be done with subtlety and should never veer into the territory of mockery. As rapport is built on a subconscious level, it is better to pick a small physical or vocal element and use this feature as the foundation to foster connection. NLP taps into the connection shared between people on a subconscious level, and through rapport we are offered a very powerful way to build authentic connections with anyone – a fundamental element of business and leadership.