The NLP idea of ‘pacing and leading’ is based on a genuine observed psychological phenomenon, and has some very useful applications in the real world.
‘Pacing’ in NLP means matching someone, falling into step with them, entering into their model of the world. You can pace someone’s ideas, beliefs and experiences as well as their words and behaviour (you don’t have to share those ideas, you just have to fall into step with them for a while).
Human beings have a natural tendency to fall into step with each other. So after you have matched someone for a while, you can do something slightly different – slow your breathing down, uncross your legs, or scratch your nose – and if you have rapport, the other person will follow you. If they don’t follow your lead, you can do some more matching until they are ready.
Remember, when people are interacting – whether they are familiar with NLP or not – they are either pacing each other, or doing something different. If enough rapport has been built up, the other person will follow their lead into the new action; if not, there’s a potential mismatch that you can repair – if you want to – by more pacing.
So what are the real-world applications of pacing and leading? Firstly, it’s very useful for helping people to change their physiological and emotional states to something that’s more useful or appropriate. To go back to the example from ‘The Easy Way To Achieve Rapport‘ article of the doctor tapping the pen in rhythm with the rapid, shallow breathing of someone with asthma, you can probably imagine what she could do next….
Yes, once she’s established rapport, she could start to slow the tapping down, which leads the patient’s breathing to get slower and calmer. Years ago I mentioned this at an NLP group I used to run; at a subsequent meeting, someone with asthma told me they had used the same principle to match their own asthmatic breathing by moving their hand, and when they gradually slowed the movement of their hand down, their breathing came back under control.
Another application of pacing and leading in a business context that might seem counter-intuitive at first is in dealing with angry people, for example on a complaints desk.
At one time, people in this situation were trained to answer the client’s complaints in a calm, quiet and reasonable manner – the idea being to get the conversation back to a place where the customer’s grievance could be dealt with rationally.
Staying in a resourceful, calm state on the inside is absolutely the right advice in that situation; the only problem is, if the customer is raging and shouting, and you answer in calm, level tones, the customer is not going to feel like you’re taking him seriously. Even worse, they would probably feel talked down to, like you’re implying that they are acting like a child. In that situation, a certain type of customer is going to escalate their anger rather than calm down, so the attempt to soothe the situation has actually made things worse.
Looking at this from the point of view of pacing and leading, what could you do instead? …. While staying in a resourceful state yourself, match their tone and energy level, and some of the body language, and then gradually lead them back towards calmness and reason. Actually you want to almost match the tone and volume – you certainly don’t want to appear louder and angrier, as this could escalate the situation. You would also want to shift your posture, so that it seems like you’re both facing the problem to deal with it, rather than confronting the person.
People I have trained who work in customer service environments have tried this out – sometimes they’ve been skeptical at first – and they tell me it works.
A lot of leadership is about managing and inspiring emotions in the people you lead. The ’emotional climate’ of a team, as the best selling author and emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman calls it, has a big influence on bottom line results. When people feel good – when they are in a resourceful state, as we would say in NLP – they they think and work better, with predictable results on creativity, customer relationships, staff retention and revenue. For every 1% improvement in the service climate, there is a 2% increase in revenue. More dramatically, a 1995 study found that the death rate in cardiac units where the nurses’ mood was described as generally “depressed” was four times higher than in comparable units (from studies quoted in his excellent book The New Leaders – US title Primal Leadership – co-authored with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee).
So the emotional climate of a team or workplace matters. And the biggest influence on the emotions of team members is the leader of that team. In times of uncertainty or crisis, in particular, team members look to the leader for clues as to how to respond. If you’re leading a team, you probably don’t realise how much of an impact you have on the emotions of those around you.
The more emotionally expressive the leader is (in facial expression, voice tone, and gesture), the more influence he or she will have on the overall emotional climate. Of course there’s a threshold beyond which the person is so emotionally expressive that they lose rapport with their team. If you want to improve the emotional climate of your team, you can start by pacing their overall mood and energy levels, and then gradually lead them to where they need to be.
Have you ever worked for a boss who is very emotionally inexpressive? People like this, who neglect the non-verbal side of communication, leave an emotional power vacuum which another member of the group may fill, emerging as the “emotional leader” of the team. The good news about this is that even if you are not the nominal leader of your team, you have the ability to make a positive difference to the emotional climate of your team through pacing and leading.
In a sales situation, you can pace the interests, needs and energy levels of your prospect, and lead them smoothly towards states of interest, desire and action. Remember though that pacing and leading only really works in situations where it’s a win/win for both you and the prospect. More about this a later article, when we consider influencing with integrity.
Finally, in any interaction whatsoever, especially the ‘difficult’ conversations that we sometimes need to have where a supplier has let us down, or we want someone to change their behaviour, you’re going to increase your chance of success tremendously when you start and end with rapport. Let’s take the case of resolving something at your child’s school; if you start with your complaint rather than starting with rapport, that’s going to colour the whole conversation. Both sides will dig their heels in and not really listen to each other. And if you end on the complaint rather than re-establishing rapport, that will get you off to a bad start next time you see that teacher. Much better to start and end on rapport, so you you’re not putting up barriers to communication, either in that interaction or in the relationship as a whole. You can disagree and still maintain the relationship.
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