I’m intrigued by conversation social signals, as described in the book by Alex Pentland called Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World. Pentland’s research reveals four key social signals that can be measured during business conversations: influence, mimicry, activity and consistency.

In my work as a coach, I’ve been trained to detect subtle clues to how someone might be thinking or feeling. Not everyone does this naturally, but it is something that everyone can learn to do.

Just about everyone uses mimicry in conversations whether we’re aware of it or not. We mirror conversation partners automatically and unconsciously. The mirror neurons in our brains hardwire us to copy smiles, interjections, head nodding, and vocal timing and pitch. Some of us mimic more than others. Salespeople are often trained to use mimicry as a tactic, but customers can usually tell when this wholly natural tendency is exaggerated or faked.

Mirroring behaviors increase the degree to which conversational partners like and trust each other. Unconscious and authentic mimicry is a sign of empathy that can actually improve negotiation results by 20 to 30 percent. No other factor in financial interactions proves to be as effective.

Measuring Activity

The amount of energy we invest in a conversation signals our degree of interest and attention. Excitement is therefore an honest signal. Even when we try to be smooth and subdued, outward signs of nervous activity will emerge. We fidget, talk quickly and gesture when we’re sincerely interested in a topic and the conversation’s potential outcome.

When two people are exploring the possibility of a relationship, they signal interest in each other with rising activity levels. When observing speed-daters, social scientists can accurately predict which women will provide their phone numbers, based solely on activity levels during these brief encounters. The same applies to other social interactions and business networking.

Whenever two people gesture and talk energetically, the odds are very good that they’ll trade contact information to further their relationship. Conversation partners seem to know this intuitively and can sense when to follow up.

How can we apply this in business? If you’ve ever had a conversation that lacked energy, you know there’s a problem. Solve it by finding a topic that interests the other person. Ask questions that give you insights into what your conversation partner values. You’ll further the relationship when you raise your partner’s activity level.

What do you think? Try observing your next conversation for mimicry and activity levels. See if you can raise your awareness of key social signals that help you communicate better. I’d love to hear your opinion on this. In the meantime, you can reach me here or on LinkedIn.