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The Importance Of Non-Verbal Responses
I once had some business dealings with the head of a video production
company, a big guy who my colleagues (and I) found somewhat
intimidating. After meeting him a couple of times, I realised that the
secret of his unsettling demeanour was that he didn't "do" rapport.
Whether unconsciously or as a deliberate tactic, he failed to respond
with the usual repertoire of nods, smiles and looks that normally send
the non-verbal message "yes I hear you".
As a good NLP'er I did my best to match him; when he made some
off-colour joke (and his poor female employees had to simper along with
it) I remained resolutely stone-faced. It seemed to work; as far as I
could tell from the content of what he said and the rest of his
behaviour, he respected me.
The whole episode brought home to me how much we normally rely on
non-verbal responses; if you say something intended to be amusing and
it doesn't elicit at least a polite smile, it can be almost as
disconcerting as when we put out our hand on meeting someone and they
refuse to shake it.
Behavioural Reinforcement And Rapport
Anchoring, one of the central components of NLP, was inspired by Pavlov's work on classical conditioning.
Essentially, anchoring links a particular state to a specific stimulus,
so that we can evoke or change states at will. Interestingly, academic
psychology's equally well-documented study of operant conditioning to shape behaviour
seems to have had little influence on NLP so far. This is all the more
surprising since behaviourism was a dominant model in psychology in the
fifties and sixties ‚Äì though perhaps the behaviourists' insistence
on treating subjective experience as an irrelevance, or in hardline
cases denying its existence altogether, didn't fit well with NLP as
"the study of subjective experience". This article suggests that the
behaviourist concept of "positive reinforcement" can clarify our
understanding of rapport and how to achieve it.
So what is positive reinforcement? "A reinforcer is anything that,
occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability
that the act will occur again."8 Reinforcers in conversation
between two people might be the laugh you get when you tell a joke, a
nod when you say something you believe in, or even something as little
as a grunted acknowledgement when you say hello.
The key element is that it the reinforcer is an immediate response to
an action, providing instant feedback. This allows the reinforcer to
work at the unconscious level (as the unconscious needs that proximity
in time to make a link between the behaviour and the reinforcing
response). I want to emphasise that reinforcers are not the same as
rewards, which may be given long after the behaviour has happened ‚Äì and
consequently can require the participation of the conscious mind to
make the link.
Positive reinforcers can provide the unconscious mind with the
information "Yes ‚Äì you're on the right track. Keep on doing more of
this." Subjectively this will be experienced as a feeling of comfort
and ease ‚Äì rather like the feeling which NLP manuals and textbooks
traditionally describe as being one of the ways of knowing when you are
"Flow" States And Feedback
In Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness9,
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes "optimal experience" as something
rather similar; a state in which we lose our self-consciousness because
all our attention is on what we are doing. We have probably all
experienced this when taking part in a stimulating conversation.
Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi's research reveals that people of all
ages report positive moods most often when they are with friends.
One of that characteristics that Csikszentmihalyi defines as necessary
for an activity to make entering a flow state possible is the presence
of immediate feedback ‚Äì such as the immediate, subtle non-verbal
responses we get when we are in rapport with another person.
One of the standard early exercises for teaching Ericksonian hypnosis
skills on many NLP trainings is the "That's Right" exercise10.
Apparently one way that Milton Erickson used to induce trance was to
utter the reassuring phrase "That's right" whenever the client showed
some sign of trance. When this is done in the training room,
"practitioners" are usually surprised at how rapidly the subject slips
into a trance state ‚Äì and the subject usually reports how pleasant the
Clearly what Erickson is doing here ‚Äì and what we are doing when we
follow his example in the exercise – is reinforcing desired behaviour
by encouraging it whenever it occurs. The result is that the behaviour
being reinforced ‚Äì showing signs of trance ‚Äì happens more frequently,
until very soon the subject enters trance completely.
It's worth noticing that when a phrase such as "that's right" is used
without reference to any immediately preceding behaviour ‚Äì as is
sometimes done, for example, by inexperienced NLP trainers ‚Äì it tends
to lose rapport with an audience and may come across as patronising.
Matching and Mirroring vs. Reinforcement: An Example
Let's say I'm working in an open plan office with a colleague, and I
casually ask her a question. No reply. After a moment or two I look
across at her ‚Äì her body posture matches mine, she happens to be
matching my rate of breathing, and even (were I to consciously notice
it) my blink rate (let's assume I know my colleague well enough to
discount the possibility that she is mimicking my body language for
purposes of mockery ‚Äì in fact the thought doesn't even cross my mind).
A moment or two more passes. I'm becoming quite uncomfortable. Has she
heard me? Is she deliberately ignoring me? Have we reached a point yet
where it wouldn't be rude to repeat the question ‚Äì and if so, should I
repeat it louder?
My point is that in this situation all the matching and mirroring that
she is doing is not creating a feeling of rapport ‚Äì which according to
the letter of the NLP textbooks, it should. In fact, I would welcome
any sort of shift in posture, even if it takes her completely away from
mirroring me; at least it would be some sort of response that I could
take as a sign that she has heard me and that my communication has had
some effect. Any kind of response would do.
Undoubtedly matching and mirroring do contribute to achieving rapport
more rapidly and deeply. I believe that the responding to actions that
Goleman describes between mother and baby (see Part I)
‚Äì and which we can also observe or experience in any successful
communication between adults ‚Äì is a "missing piece" that the received
wisdom of NLP has somehow overlooked. Matching in time, by responding
to behaviour (and hence reinforcing it) is as important as matching
posture in space. We need to "carry back" to our partners that their
message has been heard and understood.
So when my exercise partner at the NLP conference mirrored my gestures
when I was speaking, the reason it felt strange was that the timing was
out ‚Äì the gestures were not a response to what I was saying. When the
boss of the video company made people feel uncomfortable, he did so by
not responding ‚Äì by suppressing the almost unconscious non-verbal
responses that we would normally expect in conversation.
How could we have missed something so obvious? After all, even though
responsiveness and reinforcement is not formally taught in the rapport
segment of an NLP training, we still generate rapport rapidly during
the exercises ‚Äì and we don't generally come a cropper when using the
matching and mirroring skills we have learned later on in "real life".
My guess is that the appropriate non-verbal responses that reinforce
rapport, signal someone to continue speaking, and let the speaker know
that they have been heard, are something that we do anyway. Our
conscious intent to achieve rapport as good NLP'ers, in an exercise or
a real-life situation such as meeting someone for the first time, may
well amplify our non-verbal responses and reinforcers without us
noticing. Because these responses are a part of being human, we are
normally no more aware of them than the fish is aware of the water.
At the beginning of Frogs Into Princes, Bandler and Grinder state that "The basic unit of analysis in face-to-face conversation is the feedback loop."11
As with so much else in their early work, we would benefit from
exploring further the direction that the NLP pioneers so tantalisingly
8. Karen Pryor, Don‚Äôt Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching And Training
(Revised Edition), Ringpress Books (2002): an excellent introduction to
the use of reinforcement in shaping behaviour, and the book that
sparked off the idea for this article.
9. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Classic Work On How To Achieve Happniess,
Rider & Co (2002)
10. John Overdurf and Julie Silverthorn, Training Trances: Multi-Level Communication in Therapy and Training, Metamorphous Press (1995)
11. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Frogs Into Princes, Eden Grove Editions (1990).
If you would like to train in NLP
with a trainer who won't just regurgitate what his trainer told him,
and who has read and thought deeply around the subject, call Andy Smith
0845 83 855 83 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Emotional Attunement And Synchrony
Psychological research backs up the conventional NLP view of rapport, suggesting that "synchrony" of physical movements seems to help the sending and receiving of moods. Many pertinent studies are summarised in Daniel Goleman's classic Emotional Intelligence4. Frank Bernieri's studies in classrooms found that that teachers and students felt more friendly and enthused the more their movements were coordinated. Bernieri told Goleman, "How awkward or comfortable you feel with someone is at some level physical. You need to have compatible timing, to coordinate your movements, to feel comfortable."4
Other studies suggest that emotions can be transmitted from one person to another, particularly by facial expressions, so one could reasonably expect that two people in rapport would adopt shared body language that goes with the shared emotion they are feeling.5 Research by Robert Levenson found that mimicking someone's physiological patterns (while watching them on videotape) makes it easier to read their feelings. This all supports what we already know to be true about rapport.4
Another piece of research by Daniel Stern on the interactions between mothers and babies suggests there is something more going on:
"A baby squeals with delight, for example, and the mother affirms that delight by giving the baby a gentle shake, cooing, or matching the pitch of her voice to the baby's squeal. Or a baby shakes his rattle, and she gives him a quick shimmy in response" (my italics).
This process, called "attunement" by Stern, is thought to give the baby a feeling of emotional connection and reassurance, and differs from just imitation:
"If you just imitate a baby, that only shows you know what he did, not how he felt. To let him know you sense how he feels, you have to play back his inner feelings in another way. Then the baby knows he is understood." 4
The key here seems to be responding to a given action, rather than matching it exactly (though matching the level of emotional intensity in the response to that shown in the original action seems to be key). The timing of the mother's actions (each response following the baby's action immediately) is crucial in establishing reassurance and connection; a sequence of shakes, coos or looks unrelated to specific actions by the infant would not work as well, however closely they matched in tone and physiology. Similar action-specific responses are crucial to establishing a feeling of comfort in adult interactions.
The only reference to responding to specific messages as an element of rapport-building that I could find in the NLP literature was in Richard Bolstad's Transforming Communication. He mentions 'minimal encouragers' ‚Äì "brief grunts or words of acknowledgment ‚Ä¶ which tell the speaker that you are still awake and listening."6
He also advocates the use of 'reflective listening' ‚Äì reflecting the feelings and the information that a speaker expresses by restating it back to them in your own words ‚Äì as an essential skill in establishing rapport. Interestingly, this conversational technique (also known as 'active listening') is often scorned by some NLP'ers because it takes no account of matching sensory predicates7. Bolstad suggests that matching sensory predicates makes reflective listening more effective; my experience suggests that even without predicate matching, the verbal response supplied by reflective listening is an effective rapport-builder.
In the final part of this article we look at the importance of non-verbal responses, behavioural reinforcement as a rapport-builder, and the connection to 'flow' states.
If you would like to train in NLP with a trainer who won't just regurgitate what his trainer told him, and who has read and thought deeply around the subject, call Andy Smith now on
0845 83 855 83 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury (1996)
5. Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1998)
6. Richard Bolstad, Transforming Communication, Prentice Hall NZ (2004)
7. "Predicates"?!! Here's a good definition from Andy Bradbury's NLP Glossary:
"In NLP, the word predicate is used in the sense of implying something. In particular, we talk about the "sensory predicates" which refers to words or phrases that imply that a particular sensory system is in use."
Part III – Behavioural Reinforcement And Rapport – is coming up soon!