Interactional Synchrony And Reciprocity In Communication

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Learn about interactional synchrony and reciprocity in communication in today's lesson. We discuss the importance of synchrony and reciprocity in social interaction and share strategies for mirroring.

Who would have guessed that our first communication lessons take place when we are a baby. You heard that correctly.

Interactions between the baby and caregiver are mutual and rhythmic, flowing on the same wavelength. 

They are communicating with each other constantly. And guess what? No words are involved. At least, not on the baby’s side.

This is where interactional synchrony and reciprocity come into play. Due to a process called mirroring, we enrich our communication, verbal and nonverbal, in ways that we don’t even realize.

And this isn’t just reserved for babies and caretakers. 

It turns out that interactional synchrony and reciprocity play a key role in making ourselves more likable to the people we interact with.

And who doesn’t want to be more likable?

In this lesson, we unpack the concepts of interactional synchrony and reciprocity and discuss how we can apply them to our lives for even richer social interactions.

The definition of interactional synchrony, according to Ruth Feldman (2007) is a “temporal coordination of micro-level social behavior” during “symbolic exchanges between parent and child.”

Alright, so the exchange between a baby and caregiver is a synchronized one. A baby giggles and the caregiver laughs in response. A baby cries and the concerned caregiver makes a consoling face. A baby smiles and the caregiver smiles back.

These synchronized interactions set the foundation for a bond to form and for attachment to take place. According to Feldman, “Synchrony is shown to depend on physiological mechanisms supporting bond formation in mammals” (Feldman, 2007).

Condon and Sander (1974) found that as early as our first day on earth, as a neonate, we respond to spoken words “in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.

And in Meltzoff and Moore’s (1983) research, they found that three-day-old babies imitate adults’ facial expressions. 

Amazing right?

That means that we are born with the ability to mirror. It is not something we learn. We just do it.

And our ability to mirror without being taught this communication strategy is important because it paves the way for the creation of our future bonds and relationships.

So why is this interactional synchrony and reciprocity important to adults?

It allows us to self-regulate, understand symbols, and be empathetic toward each other as we grow older: “Developmental outcomes of the synchrony experience are observed in the domains of self-regulation, symbol use, and the capacity for empathy across childhood and adolescence.” Feldman (2007)

So when you are interacting with people and you want to form a stronger bond with them, recall interactional synchrony and reciprocity.

When we have natural rapport with someone, we mirror their behavior subconsciously. This is our innate mechanism of synchrony and reciprocity kicking into high gear. And it reinforces your familiarity and likeability throughout the interaction.

But what about the people we don’t have instant rapport with? Fear not! It turns out that if the interactional synchrony and reciprocity doesn’t happen automatically, we can replicate some of the same behaviors manually to achieve the same positive result. 

The following are a few ways we can do that:

Practice active listening

Active listening shows empathy and understanding. So as you listen to the speaker, do a triple nod, lean into the conversation by physically leaning in, and use discourse markers like “right” “mmm hmmm”, “absolutely” “uh huh”, “ahh”… you get the idea.

Mirror positive body language 

Use an open stance, relax your shoulders, give a warm and welcoming smile, and maintain good posture. When you see someone else do this, use that as a reminder to imitate them. 

Volume

Pay attention to how loudly or softly they are speaking. Are they whispering? Then whisper. Are they speaking loudly from their diaphragm? Do the same. Are they soft-spoken? Try that. Matching their volume shows immediate reciprocity and synchrony. 

Speed 

How fast are they speaking? Match your speed to theirs. If you’re a fast talker and they’re a slow talker, slow your pacing down. If they speak quickly, try to match their pace. If you can’t speak as quickly as they do, just speak as quickly as you can while still sounding natural. 

So those are a few techniques that involve both verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication. They are designed to build rapport and create reciprocity and trust between the interlocutors. Mirroring works best in dyadic conversation, meaning involving two people. 

Remember, we use mirroring naturally with people to whom we are close and with whom we have already established rapport. When you are meeting someone for the first time, that’s when you can try to manually implement these strategies. 

Just try not to be too obvious about it. Aim for subtlety. This isn’t Simon Says 😊

When you get it right, and fall into a natural synchrony with them, you end up with far better communication outcomes. 

So while it isn’t easy, I highly encourage you to practice this every chance you get because the payoff is absolutely worth it. 

closing sign off

So now that I've shared our thoughts, I’d love to hear your own ideas for mirroring. How else do you establish interactional synchrony and reciprocity? Can you think back to a time when mirroring helped you close a deal, land a job or have another successful outcome?

Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments down below.

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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners. 

Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.

Happy Explearning ⚡