People management: The body language of empathy

Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman,

U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter is retiring and President Barack Obama is looking for a nominee who has, among other qualifications, "empathy for ordinary Americans." I assume that the president has his own definition of empathy, but in my programs on The Nonverbal Advantage, I use the term to describe the human ability to internalize the emotional state of others by simply observing or mirroring their body language.


We are hard-wired to connect with others. The brain's mirror neuron system gives us the ability to create an image of the internal state of another person's mind. The moment you see an emotion expressed on someone's face – or read it in her gestures or posture – you subconsciously place yourself in the other person's "mental shoes," and begin to sense that same emotion within yourself.


Notice what happens naturally the next time you are talking with someone you like or are interested in. You'll find that you and your partner have subconsciously switched body postures to match one another - mirroring nonverbal behaviour and thereby signalling that you are connected and engaged. A recent research study observed two different teachers as they taught students. One used mirroring, the other did not. The students' reactions were substantially more positive toward the teacher using mirroring techniques. They believed that the teacher was much more successful, friendly, and appealing.


There are other forms of behavioral congruence in which people imitate each other without realizing it. Interactional synchronizing occurs when people move at the same time in the same way, simultaneously picking up coffee cups or starting to speak at the same time. This often occurs when we are getting along well with another person, and it can feel as though we are "on the same wavelength." In fact, synchronizing is once again the result of our subliminal monitoring of, and responding to, each other's nonverbal cues.


One executive told me that in a negotiation session he often mirrors the posture of the person he's dealing with. He noticed that doing so gives him a better sense of what the other person is experiencing. I've noticed this as well. Our bodies and emotions are so closely linked that by assuming another person's posture, you are not only gaining rapport, but are actually able to "get a feel" for his or her frame of mind.


In his book, On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, "Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding – to see the idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about."


Reaching that goal of real communication – of understanding, of empathy – this is why nonverbal literacy is so crucial to our profession relationships.


About the author:
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is The Nonverbal Advantage – Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information, contact Carol by phone (510-526-1727) e-mail ( or through her Web sites ( and


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About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. speaks on leadership, change, collaboration and body language in the workplace to association, government and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is &l...