Skip to content

The Surprising Way To Get People To Change: Pacing and Leading

iStock by Getty Images

You would never think to get someone to change by actually joining in their behavior. But this is one of the best ways to get change that you’ve never been taught. The best persuaders use it and you should too.

The common mistake people make is that they try to influence others directly with their reasoning and facts. New discoveries in cognitive sciences, however, show that people are not influenced by rational reasoning but by irrational tendencies derived mostly from their emotional state. The leading theory, called the argumentative theory, proposes that reasoning evolved in early humans more for the sake of winning arguments than as a guide to effective decision making (1). Most behavioral scientists now agree that trying to bring people to your side only with facts usually fails. You can find my recommended list of books that cover this here. A more effective way to persuade is to move people to a more receptive emotional state prior to influencing them; a pre-suasive state or sweet spot that triggers the primitive and more active decision-making processes (2).

Pacing and leading provides such a pre-suasive avenue and is a concept from neuro-linguistic programming. The technique involves first pacing or matching the person you are trying to lead, mimicking their posture, speech, gestures, and most importantly, emotion. If paced correctly, you will establish rapport and trust with them. In this connected state, they are now more amenable to your suggestions (leading).

The next time you meet with sales reps you might notice them pacing you. Even with your awareness of this technique it will still work on you. That separates the magical persuasion techniques from the rest. In several studies, people’s verbal and nonverbal behavior (gestures, posture) were mimicked and it resulted in waitresses doubling their tips (3), negotiators obtaining better outcomes (4), and electronics store salespeople getting greater compliance from customers and selling more products to them (5).

Here’s how it’s done:

Synchronize their breathing. For practice, match the breathing rate and depth of someone near you at a meeting. Look away and then check back to see if you are still timed. Soon you will get good at this.

Match their posture and gestures. If they have their arms folded and are leaning forward, you should too. If they change position, you should continue matching some of this. Give yourself about a 3 second lag before you mimic an action to not make it obvious.

Match their speech and emotions. Use the same tone, volume, and verbal style. Use similar words and phrases, even repeating some back. Gauge their emotional state and mimic it through your actions and words. Your mimicking should be strategic, don’t copy every action.

Check for pacing. After some time, make a change of your own like uncrossing your arms or leaning back. If paced, they will follow your shift and now copy you.

Begin leading. You can now change your emotions to get them to align with you and initiate leading with the greatest chance of compliance.

Bonus move. Just prior to your request, provide a genuine compliment. This acts as a force multiplier and brings about even greater willingness to follow.

The mechanism, from a behavioral sciences perspective, is that when you mimic someone, a strong sense of similarity and unity with you is created in their mind. Humans evolved to experience feelings of liking (6), interpersonal trust (7), and social bonding (8) with people who are synchronized with them (dancing, singing, marching). Cognitive scientists believe that these effects arise due to a blurring of the perception of ‘self’ and ‘other’ leading to this strong affiliation (9, 10). Neurohormonal mechanisms also play a role during synchronization with the release of endogenous opioids that encourage social attachment (10).

This LIKENESS leads to them LIKING and TRUSTING you (2). The compliment lets them know that YOU like THEM (dopamine boost). In this privileged state, they are cognitively primed to perfection (pre-suaded). Now the facts you provide are used to justify a decision they have already made, to be led by you.  Like Renee Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire — “You had me at hello.”

Simply trying to convince people by reasoning and facts alone will only make them argue and resist, leading to low compliance. You must pace them first.

A great opportunity for pacing and leading is when your employees are emotionally vulnerable (fear, insecurity, frustration). The conventional leader will think that being calm will help mitigate things. Surprisingly, this actually leads to more stress as they realize their leader is out of touch with them. Match their stress level and posture. Speak about the fears they have using their words. Get synchronized with them. Then work them to a better state of mind with your plan and vision going from despair to resoluteness and hope.

At job interviews, pace the interviewer’s breathing, use some of the same phrases they use, and match their posture and emotions. Compliment them. Then lead them to your candidacy. They will be inexplicably drawn to you and want you on their team.

This is weapons-grade persuasion. You can even use this on your own management. Try it with your children or spouse (if you dare). You will be surprised at the many “yes” responses you get. Enjoy this superpower but use it wisely and never to manipulate people. You’re welcome!


For an interesting take on how President Trump paced and led his base in the 2016 elections, read Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, a New York Times bestselling book by Scott Adams, Dilbert creator and persuasion expert.  This book has many other useful persuasion tips as well.

For the religiously minded, here are some examples from 2000 years ago.  St. Paul in 1 COR 9: 21-22 says, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law……, so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”  And didn’t God pace us by coming to us in the form of man?  The best way to lead humans to salvation is by coming as one of us, like Christ did.  The most glorious pacing and leading ever!

If you found this useful, please hit the like button and share with your network because they, like me, will be grateful to you. Thanks!


  1. Mercier, H.; Sperber, D. “Why do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory” Behavioral and Brian Sciences, 2011, 34, 57-111.
  2. Cialdini, R. “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade” Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 2016.
  3. Van Baaren, R. B.; Holland, R. W.; Steenaert, B.; van Knippenberg, A. “Mimicry for Money: Behavioral Consequences of Imitation” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2003, 39, 393-398.
  4. Maddux, W. W.; Mullen, E. E.; Galinsky, A. D. “Chameleons Bake Bigger Pies and Take Bigger Pieces: Strategic Behavioral Mimicry Facilitates Negotiation Outcomes” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2008, 44, 461-468.
  5. Jacob, C.; Guéguen, N.; Martin, A.; Boulbry, G. “Retail Salespeople’s Mimicry of Customers: Effects on Consumer Behavior” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2011, 18, 381-388.
  6. Hove, M.J.; Risen, J.L. “It’s all in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation” Social Cognition, 2009, 27, 949–961.
  7. Launay, J.; Dean, R.T.; Bailes, F. “Synchronization can Influence Trust Following Virtual Interaction” Experimental Psychology, 2013, 60, 53–63.
  8. Tarr, B.; Launay, J.; Cohen, E.; Dunbar, R. “Synchrony and Exertion During Dance Independently Raise Pain Threshold and Encourage Social Bonding” Biology Letters, 2015, 11, 0767.
  9. Decety, J.; Sommerville, J.A. “Shared Representations Between Self and Other: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience View” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2003, 7, 527–533.
  10. Tarr, B.; Launay, J.; Dunbar, R.I.M. “Music and Social Bonding: ‘Self–Other’ Merging and Neurohormonal Mechanisms” Frontiers in Psychology: Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience, 2014, 5, 1-10.

I fund my expenses of hosting this site through micro-donations from my audience on Patreon. In my own little way I am hoping to teach people how to influence and improve the outcomes in their lives. Your contributions will keep me inspired to continue this work. Thanks!

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter (@DrShaunAdvice) because many smart people enjoy my tweets. My teaching is simple and effective. You will grow with it and your eyes will be opened to how easy it actually is to be influential in your life and at work.


Keywords: #Influence #Persuasion #PacingAndLeading #CareerDevelopment # LeadershipTips


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: