Disco Your Way to Better Relationships

Unless you missed the 70s because of too many chemicals or not being born yet, you remember disco. And the associated afros and bell-bottoms and platform shoes and shark tooth pendants. Completely outta sight, baby…meet me later in your loudest polyester outfit and we’ll go roller boogie. No? Okay, maybe instead you can just bear with me while I use disco to demonstrate something a lot of PMs have a tough time with. I’m talking about rapport.

Rapport is the art of getting someone to like you in the first moments of meeting, enough that they look forward to the next time you engage. Even non-nerds find this tough to do, but if you’re going to find yourself in any kind of job where you have to deal with people, which is, oh, pretty much all of them, becoming skilled at building rapport is something that will stand you in good stead. When you build rapport quickly, you set the stage for more complex soft skills such as influence and negotiation–without which a PM won’t get very far.

Ring My Bell by Anita Ward.
Play this to get you in the right mood. wwWAAAOOOW!

As project managers, we work with a lot of people. More importantly, we meet a lot of new people pretty regularly, and find ourselves having to exert influence over them to get things for our projects. Many project managers come from purely technical or analytical backgrounds (sorry, but it’s true), and suddenly find themselves having to sway some heavy hitters in their organizations who won’t even give them the time of day.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at rapport building behaviours, and to make it interesting, let’s do it by watching disco dancers.

One of the first things you notice about disco dancers is how they seem to mirror each others’ movements. They’ll break from it periodically and do their own thing, but they always come back to a face-to-face stance, and simultaneously perform the exact same moves. Not only is that completely groovy, but it’s kind of like a conversation, isn’t it?

Well, psychologists actually have a term, “mirroring“, which we commonly use in social interaction with one another. If someone is telling you a sad story and you make a sad face while you’re listening, you’re mirroring. It serves a few purposes:

  • first, you’re placing yourself in tune with the speaker, so that you’re more receptive to what they have to say;
  • second, you’re validating the speaker and supporting them as an individual;
  • third, you’re forging an empathic connection between the two of you that you hopefully each find pleasant.

That’s some pretty deep activity just for making a face!

But mirroring isn’t just about facial expression. If you’re going to do it effectively, there’s a whole slew of physical behaviours to watch out for:

hand gestures Is the speaker very animated with their hands? Make similar gestures when it’s your turn to speak.
body language Is the speaker leaning towards you? Away from you? Try to position yourself so your belly buttons are facing one another (but not too close, that would be creepy).
muscle tension Is the speaker really wound up or relaxed? Take a similar position. If they’re very wound up, it may help to defuse the situation if you begin tense, and slowly relax yourself through the conversation. If you were successful creating an empathic bond early in conversation, they may find themselves imitating you.
tone of voice Sharp? Angry? Mellow?
eye movements Try to maintain eye contact where it’s comfortable, but notice what the speaker is looking at and shift some of your attention there, too.
breathing Try to match the breathing rate of the speaker. As with muscle tension, you can help to calm a situation by beginning a conversation by matching their breathing, and slowing your own breath over time.
tempo of speech Slower speakers generally prefer slower speakers.
attitude and demeanour Does the speaker appear excited? Happy? Bitter? Angry?
choice of words and metaphors Does the speaker have a unique turn of phrase? (i.e., “this product is the Cadillac among social media software”) You can use similar metaphors in your responses (“this is the Yugo of blog posts”).

Many of these mirroring behaviours come naturally to us, but depending on how we’ve conditioned ourselves to behave in the workplace, we only use these behaviours under certain circumstances. For example, many of us would use mirroring behaviours with children, or family or friends, but would drop them with a colleague to remain “professional”. But colleagues are people too, and you’ll find them to be just as receptive to your rapport efforts as the other people in your life.

Disco Will Never Die!One more thing: disco dancing isn’t exactly about copying. It’s more about anticipating. It’s about guessing what the person you’re dancing with is going to do before they do it. Think about it like following along in advance. “That sounds like sorcery,” you say! It’s not really. You get better at anticipating the more you do it, so the best thing to do is to just start paying attention to your own body language and mirroring gestures when you’re having a conversation with someone. As you come more in tune with your own behaviour when you’re interacting with other people, you’ll be better able to first mimic and then anticipate the behaviour of the person you’re speaking with.

Sounds super easy, right? Well, there’s a catch. You can’t mirror if you’re not looking at the person you’re speaking with and giving them your undivided attention. That means, cell phones, PDAs, iPads and other electronic junk need to either be off or ignored while you’re engaging. Think of it this way: anything in the way of the two of you will break the mirror. Since breaking a mirror is seven years’ bad luck, maybe you want to do your karma a favour and keep them all intact.

Far out, man.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • Interesting post. I’d love a follow up with your thoughts on how this works to build multicultural report. For example, speeding up your speech to match the person you are speaking with can be tough when not communicating in your native language.

    Another angle, how to mirror someone when not face to face? Building rapport is as, if not more, important when the team is not co-located.

  • Those are some very good questions. Give me a little bit to come up with a considered response! 😀 Thanks for commenting!

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