You’re standing face to face. Your eyes are locked. You begin to tilt your head. Your partner follows. No, you’re not going in for a kiss. You’re playing an improv game called “The Mirror Exercise,” an acting game designed to teach people empathy—how to be in sync with others. It’s also a great way to improve your speaking skills, whether you’re talking one-on-one or speaking to a group.
I first started using this improv exercise when I was teaching public speaking to high schoolers over 15 years ago. I remember watching my students, who couldn’t have been more different from each other, laughing and working together when they played this game. There was Sarah, who was painfully shy, at first, and Joe, the tough-guy loner, looking each other in the eye, working hard to mimic one another’s movements. Suddenly, those high school barriers evaporated; they were one. Now, I use the mirror game with adults in my presentation skills workshop entitled: “How to Be Authentic, Credible, and Persuasive In Any Speaking Situation.” And I see the same symbiosis happening among them.
Here’s how the Mirror Game works:
Facing a partner, one person is the designated leader. The leader begins to move and the person opposite, the follower, imitates the exact movements of the leader. After a period of time, the pair switches roles, and now the follower is the leader. And then, surprise, no one is the leader as together they now try to move in sync and mirror each other’s movements. (Check out the mirror game in action from last week’s public speaking training at Tinley Park Library.)
The advantage of doing the mirror exercise is that it forces participants to be completely aware of each other. As the leader, your success depends on your partner’s ability to follow you. So you have to notice “Am I moving too quickly? Am I giving clues to help my partner anticipate what’s coming next? Is my partner getting frustrated? Am I just waving my arms without any concern for their ability to follow?” Think of the real-world implications of this kind of thinking when communicating with others.
The point of the mirror exercise is not to outmaneuver your partner, or show off your Gumbi-like moves; rather, your job is to do everything possible to make sure your are working as a team, that you are in sync, paying attention to each other’s facial expressions and body language. Being in sync requires some give and take, but isn’t that what good communication is all about?
How often have you sat through a one-sided conversation, or been in a meeting where the leader seems oblivious to the needs of the group, or listened to a speaker who cares only about what he or she wants to say? The mirror game reminds us that the most effective communication happens when we show empathy for our audience—knowing who they are, why they’re there, what they need, and how they’re feeling. The more you focus on your audience’s needs instead of just what you want to tell them, the more authentic, credible and persuasive you will be as a speaker. And we can apply this same approach to all situations where we’re speaking with others.
Every day we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful and authentic exchanges, and many conversations could be an opportunity to get to know someone very different from ourselves. I like what Brene Brown says in her book, Braving the Wilderness: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” The mirror game forces us to do just that.