Check Out Political Leaders (And Yourself) In The Communication Mirror

By Jon Kraushar Communications Consultant

If you've ever wondered what attracts you to other people and vice versa (including whether you like or loathe certain politicians), take a look in the communication mirror.

Both consciously and subconsciously people may mirror--match--each other's behavior. So, when someone smiles at you, you'll often smile back. Neuroscientists have identified "mirror neurons" in the brain that fire up when we reciprocate the behavior of others and experience what is known as "mood contagion."

If you don't align your behaviors with that of others, your reaction to them may be mirror-like in a very different way: it may be a reverse reflection. For example, if you're in the audience when speakers like politicians are boring or if you strenuously disagree with them, your reaction may be to roll your eyes, to distract yourself with your BlackBerry, or even to shout out an insult.

It's important to tune in to back and forth reactions because whether you're watching someone else's signals or others are watching yours, either a connection is made or a rejection occurs. Connectingis the essence of successful communication.

This, of course, holds true in politics and examples abound of connections--or rejections.

On April 1, Queen Elizabeth placed her arm around the back of First Lady Michelle Obama as the two chatted at a reception in London for world leaders. Although strict protocol dictates "Don't touch the Queen!" Mrs. Obama mirrored the gesture and briefly wrapped her arm around the monarch's shoulder and back.

Purists at first were horrorstruck. But a Buckingham Palace spokesman said, "It was a mutual and spontaneous display of affection," (as it clearly was) and Mrs. Obama's warmth ended up charming all but the fussiest critics.

George W. Bush was on the winning side of dueling reactions in his final presidential debate with Al Gore in 2000 as both men sat at their assigned places onstage. As Bush spoke, Gore stepped off his stool and moved toward Bush, as if trying to use the intimidation of his aggressive body language to "psych out" Bush. But Bush parried Gore's thrust using a reverse reflection. He shot Gore a look that was simultaneously derisive and amused and Gore ended up looking pompous and ridiculous, as the late night comics reminded him.

Every move of the president of the United States is scrutinized, so let's consider the mirroring behaviors of two other Oval Office occupants.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have gained renown for their ability to "work" audiences--whether one-on-one or several thousand. Part of the way they connect is with mirroring.

Obama sets up his audiences for mirroring with his facial expressions and other body language. He also uses his voice to influence the crowd. Watch Obama in any setting and you'll see him leading his audience with his "cool" affect--his smooth body language and his confident speaking style, delivered with the authority and rolling cadences of a preacher. Howhe says something seems to affect the crowd even more than whathe says.

Also watch how as his audience reacts enthusiastically (both verbally and non-verbally) Obama mirrors them and enlarges the mirror by smiling or looking deeply concerned, gesturing with his hands and changing his speaking pace and volume.

Mirroring is like a dance. One leads, the other responds. When it works, the dancers are in synchrony. When it doesn't work, someone steps on a foot.

Mirroring is part style and part substance. If others see a reflection of themselves in us we can "hook" them--not only by mirroring body language but also if we talk about what others really care about. This "mating dance" is somewhat akin to seduction.

Bill Clinton was one of the ultimate seducers, as president. When John Travolta, an adherent of Scientology, played the character modeled on Clinton in the movie "Primary Colors," he met with Clinton at the White House before the filming. Travolta said Clinton won him over as he did many audiences. Clinton focused so intently on Travolta, exuding so much empathy and interest, that he made the actor feel as if no one in the world was more important to him at that moment.

Travolta told George magazine that, "Clinton...told me...'I'd really love to help you with your issue over in Germany with Scientology.' I was waiting for the seduction that I had heard so much about. I thought, 'Well, how could he ever seduce me? And after we talked, I thought, Bingo! He did it. Scientology is the one issue that really matters to me.'"

Mirroring is a communication phenomenon that can bring people in sync with one another in a positive way but it can be manipulative in a sinister way, too--so beware.

Watch for mirroring behaviors in others. Scrutinize how they speak and otherwise behave. Notice if you're being mimicked--or misled. There's a difference between being fed confidence and being fed a "con."

Trust your instincts to detect in others' body language or speech any sign of insincerity, manipulation or falseness. If something seems just slightly "off" about them--too studied, slick and inauthentic--keep your radar up. When it comes to some politicians, what looksgood and soundsgood on the surface may not begood once you probe a little deeper.

Communication mirrors can be cracked and fogged or genuine, accurate reflections. Learn to discern the difference.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at