One of the most fascinating abilities of the human unconscious mind is one you never think about (consciously) and yet use everyday: you have an incredible ability to recognize many different human voices virtually without effort, almost instantaneously. You can recognize family, friends, colleagues, famous people, and lots of people on television who are semi-famous, all without conscious effort.

That’s extraordinary, and the process by which you accomplish this feat is even more extraordinary. Your unconscious mind hears the overtones and undertones other people’s voices project, you analyze the unique mixture you’re hearing, and you produce an identification, almost instantly, and again, without trying hard.

In rare instances, you’ll have to think consciously for a moment, usually because you haven’t heard enough of the voice, or the sound transmission is bad, or there’s a lot of background noise. Perhaps you’re on the phone, and it takes you a moment to figure out who’s calling, because the sound reproduction a telephone offers is pretty feeble.

Behind this unique ability is the unique fingerprint of everyone’s voice. That is, one of the reasons we can accomplish this feat is that voices sound different to one another. Or least, different enough in the number of voices we run across in a regular life that problems don’t develop very often. I understand that fingerprints themselves actually repeat if you get enough of them – they’re not unique. So I imagine the same is true of voices; but, for all practical purposes, they are.

Now it turns out that the way we move is similarly unique. New research shows that we each have a unique motion “fingerprint” too. That’s not surprising, really, given that the way we move reveals our personalities and, given some broad human similarities, we are all different in detail.

How we move reveals our personalities, and the research further shows that we prefer to interact with someone who moves in similar (but not identical) ways.

And a final insight from this research: our motion “fingerprints” are plastic – meaning that we can modify them up to a point in order to get along with other people. We show our solidarity – and our eagerness to work with and get along – with others by moving like them in the main, while retaining our individuality in small details.

The implications for communications – public speaking, job interviews, meetings, conversations – are profound.

Our fingerprints are unique, and can’t easily be modified to be more like someone else’s. As I noted in an earlier blog post, we do modify our voices to line up behind a leader and express solidarity with a group. And now it turns out that we modify our motion in order to accomplish the same thing – to mirror another person’s or team style. That enables us to get on the same wavelength or vibe, if you will. It enables us to get along with that other person or those other people.

And the research suggests, finally, that intentional or conscious efforts to match other people’s motions will be helpful in establishing rapport with them and, in effect, joining the team. A public speaker – or anyone in a leadership role – needs to decide when it’s right to lead a group and when it’s right to join a group. In the former case, it makes sense to stick to you own individual style. But in the latter case, it may make sense to study the group’s kinesthetic style in order to mimic it.

I had an amusing experience of this (before I was aware of the research) when I was leading a group of Special Ops officers in body language training. These were some of the toughest dudes on the planet – big, trained in the martial arts and other physical training, and ready to lead. In order to lead them, for the purposes of the training, I quickly noted that I had to step up my confidence through posture and voice, or risk becoming discounted by this group as a wimp.

I found myself standing taller, puffing out my chest, and pushing my voice into a lower register in a (probably vain) attempt to make myself a bigger, badder dude than I really was. The team was all men, and there was an air of both comraderie and jockeying for top dog that I found fascinating to watch – and couldn’t help joining in – until it became clear that I was never going to be the alpha male in this group.

I had to settle for somewhere in the middle of the pack. Now I know, thanks to this new research, that my best move would have been to observe the behavior and then subtly mirror it, without trying to be the number-one male in the room. Just joining the pack, on some days, is good enough.

There are still a few places left in our pack – our one-day conference on powerful public speaking in Boston on April 22nd. If you’re interested, let us know right away so that we can save you one of the remaining spaces.

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