Tip Seven: Seek to Bring Your Communication Style into Congruence With Others in the Dialogue

Today’s post is a continuation of the communication tips that I have been posting over the last number of months. These tips focus on those important communications that you sometimes need so that you can clarify a situation, avoid confusion or conflict, or achieve an important desired outcome, such as a raise or clarity in a work assignment.


In my March 18 post, I reviewed the tips that we have covered so far.  These include:

  1. Setting a clear goal for what you hope to achieve.
  2. Have a clear outcome in mind – not just what you hope to achieve, but a clear vision of your desired outcome and a plan to arrive at that outcome.
  3. Before jumping into an important communication, seek to gain some understanding of the personal style of the other person involved.  How do they approach making decisions? What communication approach will most likely yield the best influence with the particular person?
  4. As you engage in the conversation, listen.   Listen comprehensively for indications of what the other person needs to understand, and how they process information, so that you can communicate with them more seamlessly.
  5. Understand that much more goes into communication.  In fact a relatively small percentage of our communication in important face-to-face dialogue is based on words alone.  The majority of our communication is achieved through non-verbal communication and our paralingual style (voice tone, inflection, emphasis, pauses, expression).
  6. Before entering into an important dialogue, put fair effort into gaining an understanding of how you can meet their interests and needs as a part of the process, so that your desired outcome can be adjusted and aligned to also help this person meet their needs as well.

The topic for this post and other future posts is congruence.  It is perhaps the most content-filled of the twelve tips. (And maybe this is why my posting on this topic has been a while in coming!) On our way to discussing this area, it is probably worth a sharing a short synopsis of some of the research that may, or indeed may not, apply to the area. Because this area has extensive content, I will be posting several blog posts to cover the topic.

History and Science

Richard Bandler

Richard Bandler

The underlying research to support whether there is indeed a physiological/psychological link between language and behavior is unsettled and controversial, and at times has even been tumultuous. Linking language to behavior was the focus of much study in the 1960’s and 1970s.[1]  During this period, Richard Bandler, a writer and MA psychologist, and John Grinder, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, collaborated on a series of books touting a new form of psychotherapy that they named Neural Linguistic Programming or “NLP.”  NLP gained wide acceptance in the 1980s and 1990s even though its scientific basis was never clearly established.  Initially NLP was applied in the context of psychotherapy, where Bandler and Grinder strongly asserted its effectiveness. By the early 1980’s Bandler and Grinder were embroiled in intellectual property disputes over ownership rights to “NLP” and, meanwhile, scientific studies failed to find any empirical correlation between the claimed underlying science for NLP and its alleged results and the scientific community largely dismissed NLP as a counseling or behavioral modification protocol.

John Ginder

John Grinder

While NLP as a counseling and behavior modification tool remained controversial and, at this juncture seems largely rejected by scientists for that purpose, others focused on word choice for managing interactions and conflict[2] and on non-verbal communication for persuasion, and the 1980’s and 1990’s were awash with books on “body language,” “active listening,” “proxemics (the effect of and use of space in communication),” the use of touch “haptics,” and many other techniques aimed at managing relationships using verbal and non-verbal approaches. During this window, the “sales” community adapted many of these techniques as tools for increasing a sales person’s likability and trust index.  By the mid-1990s individuals like Paul Lisnek, then Assistant Dean and Professor of Law at Loyola University in Chicago, had incorporated many of these concepts into training programs for lawyers to help them increase their persuasiveness to judges and jurors,[3] and the concept of managing subconscious rapport in important situations gained wide acceptance in many professions.

Practical Application and First Hand Experience

During this timeframe, in the late 1980s through the mid-1990’s, I held a variety of positions where building effective rapport and connections with individuals was very important.  In this window, I worked as the “Section Leader” for the Employee Relations Section for Los Alamos National Laboratory, and later also managed the Employee Counseling Section as its “Section Leader.” Later, I served as the Laboratory’s Hearing Officer and coordinated formal employee complaint reviews as well as employee disciplinary “due process” hearings.  In all of these contexts, my teammates and I worked with a wide variety of people under stress or deeply embroiled in conflicts, including among many others, victims of sexual harassment and their alleged harassers, people who were accused of workplace fraud, and people accused of breaches of scientific integrity. For us to be effective in our positions, we had to have the ability to connect with a wide range of people and to develop basic trust.  While we weren’t always successful, we did have the opportunity to test and apply the wide range of techniques and approaches that were in the popular literature and to see what really worked or what we couldn’t make work for us in our setting. Below, I review some of my conclusions, which are based now on over twenty years of practical application.

 There ARE things that we can do that allow us to test and to enhance rapport and influence with others.  Essentially, these can be boiled down to communicating congruently with others.  Here are some examples of how I applied these in a workplace context.

What are the person's non-verbal messages?

What are the person’s non-verbal messages?

1. Body Language – much has been researched and written about body language in communication. As early as the 1980s, research established that humans are capable of producing an estimated 700,000 distinct non-verbal physical gestures.[4]  Clearly, a blog post can not do justice to this subject, but when all is said and done, based on my own experience and practical application, for purposes of “congruent communication,” one concept emerges as really important: People who are in comfortable rapport with one another often tend to maintain similar body positions, use similar gestures and non-verbal styles, walk and even move similarly to the group with which they closely associate.  One time I attended a training program on rapport and influence where this concept was discussed.  To past the time on the flight home, I decided to try something.  I was on an airplane that was configured with the first two rows facing one another.  I decided to mirror the body position of a gentleman sitting a few seats diagonally from me to see if it had any affect.  I did not rigidly mimic the person.  I simply sat in a similar posture as his and did more or less the same activities as he did for the duration of the flight.  This seemed to have no impact during the flight. However, after exiting the gate on arrival as I was walking in the airport, the gentleman approached me and said, “You look so familiar.  Do I know you?”  We had honestly never met, but, even though this was purely an anecdotal experience, after that I did gain an appreciation for the power of congruence in body language.

Adopting similar body postures and using body language that is familiar and feels safe and comfortable to the listener is a key tool to congruent communication. Observing appropriate distance while communicating – which is highly variable depending on gender and familiarity – and generally using similar postures, pace of speech, inflection, and other approaches to make our body language similar to the other’s eliminates a “translation step” for that person.   A “translation step” is that micro step that the brain needs to process something that is outside our comfortable subconscious communication process.

2. Communication Style: Mirroring, Matching, Pacing, Leading – Have you ever experienced a time when you tried to raise what was a very important issue to you to another important person in your life – for example, a boss, a spouse, or a parent – and felt totally “blown off” or not taken seriously?  If you think back to that situation, there were indeed probably words that conveyed an attitude that made you feel diminished, but more than likely more of the frustrating aspects of the communication inthat encounter was non-verbal.  For example, the very excited person who runs into a room and exclaims “Oh my goodness, it’s just awful!” only to be met with another who doesn’t bother to stand, and who simply says “Now just calm down and tell me what happened.” Here we have a total disconnect. One person’s pace of speech is rapid, their voice is high pitched and tense, their shoulders are drawn up high as if being pulled towards their ears. Their heart rate is fast and their emotions high.  The other person is sitting, slouched in their chair, literally looking down their nose at the other (as with many idioms, there is a behavioral basis for that expression). Their pace of speech is slower; their heart rate is normal.  In short – they are completely out of sync.  They are out of congruence with one another.  If the person who is receiving the communication is in a position where trust and rapport with others matters (for example an HR representative, a law enforcement officer, or a counselor), then it matters how they react.

Note the raised shoulders!

Note the raised shoulders!

Here the skill of mirroring and matching the initial communication style enables the recipient of the communication to establish an initial linkage with the excited individual.  The recipient may consciously mirror the other person’s unconscious body language by literally lifting their shoulders, raising the pitch (not the volume) of their voice, increasing the speaking pace of their response and standing to match the person’s body posture.  So, for example instead of calmly responding “Just relax and tell me what happened,” they may instead rise to their feet, lift their shoulders and reply in a style that somewhat matches the initial communication with a response such as “Oh gosh!  Tell me what has happened!”

Once this initial congruence is established by mirroring and pacing with the other’s subconscious style, and as the communication progresses, the person seeking to restore calm to the situation, can slowly lead the other out of this zone of excited communication, but gradually interjecting some deep breaths, pauses, and gradually slowing the communication down and adopting more relaxed body postures.  This is the process of “mirroring—matching—pacing—leading.”

For me, in my professional practice, where connecting with a wide range of people is really important, I always try to be observant of the person’s body language, their pace of speech, the tension inherent in their non-verbal cues, and tried to subtly and respectfully bring my own style into a closer match to theirs, so that I can gain that initial connection and trust.  Later I can relax, sip my tea, breathe, and send them from my office feeling calmer and feeling that they have really been listened to. It is not a rote thing, nor is it remotely something like “monkey see – monkey do.”  It is always subtle and if I err, it is invariably in understating my moves to be congruent, but it is there.

There is so much more to cover in this topic and it is a challenging topic to address with the written word.  We’ll cover more on the topic of congruence in our next post!


© 2013, Bruce J. MacAllister, J.D., all rights reserved.  This article cannot be reprinted or distributed without the written approval of the author.

[1] See, e.g. bibliographies for two pioneering researcher/writers, Richard Bandler (http://www.amazon.com/Richard-Bandler/e/B000APGX88/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_10) and John Grinder (http://www.amazon.com/John-Grinder/e/B002886A5Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_20).

[2] See, e.g. Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, George J. Thompson, Ph.D. and Jerry B. Jenkins; Harper Collins, 1993.

[3] See, e.g., Lawyer’s Handbook for Interviewing and Counseling, Paul M. Lisnek, West Publishing Co., 1991.

[4] See, e.g., Nonverbal Communication – The Unspoken Dialogue, Judee K. Burgoo, et al., Harper & Row, 1989.

Comments (6)

  1. Reply

    Hello truth be told there! This is without a doubt my initial comment here so that I just had to give a brief shout out and say that I enjoy looking through your articles and content. Can you recommend other blogs/websites/forums which will cover the same topics? Thanks!

    • Reply

      Hi. Thanks for your Shout out! Actually, I have focused on posting articles on this site, because there doesn’t seem to be many good alternatives that focus on communication and conflict resolution. What I can offer you, is that, if you post a specific question, I will provide you with the best answers possible, based on my experience and education. I hope you will feel free to post questions and more comments! Thanks again!

  2. Gregory Bishop


    To whom it may concern, I am a support worker and I have three clients to look after. I have noticed communication problems taking place with them. The supervisor wants me to review the best practices and the poor practices in congruent communication to help with my clients communication problems.

    • Reply

      Hello and thanks for your comment. From what I can gather, your supervisor wants to to work with the three people that you care for and help them improve their communications with one another. If this is the case, you have a great opportunity to carefully observe the overall communication dynamics and processes between them, while being a bit removed from their issues. This gives you an excellent chance to watch and see what is going on. What are the triggers that cause conflict? Does it seem like the three people have different values and that these sometimes clash? Does it seem like their communication styles are different and incongruent with one another? Are there alliances between two to the exclusion of the third? Look closely to see what seems to be at the root of their differences. Values, goals, style, approach? When you think you have some idea of some of the factors that might be causing their conflict, you don’t have to leap to conclusions. Instead, simply ask them some innocent questions with something like this approach: “You know it seems that every time [Person A] mentions [such and such] it upsets you. Is there something about that issue that is upsetting to you?” Give them a chance to respond. You may have completely missed the boat. But if not, you may gain insight into what is driving them to react. Take this approach step-by-step to validate what you have observed, by asking non-threatening, and non-judgmental innocent questions. You will find that often people open up when you show any interest and even the slightest insight into their situation. Eventually, you will find that you have a good grasp of what is going on. Then you will be prepared to start thinking about the next step.

      You might like to try this approach and see what you discover and, once you feel you have a good grasp of what is at the root of their conflict, we can explore options and approaches to help them work through it.

      I hope this helps!

      Bruce MacAllister

  3. Christoff


    While I like the idea of congruence, I’m cautious to apply it in my own life to every single person, having to mimic their body language just to establish an unconscious “rapport”.

    Wouldn’t it be easier to be myself and if I get on with someone I get on if not then so be it. Feels more natural and effective.

    I feel that more and more of therapy nowadays is becoming so artificial…it loses all effectiveness. I’d rather a person who is an incogruent honest jerk but who cares than someone who knows all the right moves but at the end of the day just wants their giant counsellor’s paycheck…which I feel most counsellors are becoming.

    • Reply

      Thanks for the excellent observation! I completely agree that congruence, simply for the sake of congruence, can create a contrived relationship and actually can be more distressing and distracting. Typically, I suggest thinking about different communication styles and preferences in situations where an important relationship just isn’t working right and someone wants to improve it. As a personal example, I encountered a situation where there was a turn-over in a key position to which I frequently had to report information and status reports. I had maintained an excellent relationship with the previous person in that role and our conversations and status reports were easy. When I approached the new person with the information in the same format that I had used with the previous person, I found that it did not seem to “work” for that person. Initially, I simply tried harder to communicate using the same visuals and information formats I had used, but eventually discovered that the new person needed the information presented in a very different format. As an example, the first manager really appreciated the “big picture,” and liked pie charts and visuals. However, the new person needed to see more data. They really appreciated seeing the listings and information that formed the underlying data for the graphics. It was just their style. In another situation with another manager, I found that she really didn’t care that much about trends and data, but if you came forward with one compelling anecdote that demonstrated the injustice of a situation or the need for a change, that was far more effective than trended information reflecting many situations.

      So, when I suggest congruence, I tend to mention it as a possible approach to enhance an existing relationship that seems to be missing some element of comfort, ease, or connection. Again, I agree, that congruence just for its own sake, can actually be off-putting and, frankly, exhausting to consistently achieve. Differences in style are great, when they are openly accepted and do not, in themselves, create a barrier to communication.

      Again, thanks for the comment!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *