Mirroring is a therapeutic technique where you repeat back to a client, usually in your own words but sometimes word for word, the idea that has just been expressed. It can literally be as simple as:
Client: “I felt hurt and confused.”
Therapist: “You felt hurt and confused.”
No clever interpretations, no strategies for overcoming the problem, just listening and repeating. Yet when you watch an expert mirroring during a session you can’t help but be impressed by its impact on the flow of conversation and by the palpable human connection being fostered in the room. The skill and art of this seemingly simple strategy lies in being fully present in order to hear what has been said and in being able to take on the perspective of the other so that you can pull out the underlying theme from what is sometimes a long, rambling, almost incoherent speech where ephemeral, free-floating ideas are being put into words.
Mirroring is a connection builder because it lets people feel really heard and understood, sometimes for the first time in their lives. As professionals we like to think that clients keep coming back because of all the great advice and insight we are throwing their way, but without the foundation of connection forged through understanding they are likely to terminate before any of this advice or insight can be offered, plus they won’t take it unless true understanding exists first. Why are you likely to take the same advice from a best friend that you would never take from an authority figure or mere acquaintance? Precisely because you know your best friend gets you on a deep level and has your back.
The distinction we try to make between the counseling relationship and other relationships is arbitrary. Both parties bring all of their baggage into the room and the same rules apply, although some professionals try to hide behind a veneer of objectivity, an unconscious mechanism they use to protect themselves from being exposed as human beings with their own foibles, rationalized as the ‘scientific’ approach. It’s outrageous that some of us learn about the psychology of the human condition yet fool ourselves into believing these rules don’t apply to us, only to the people we are treating. The point of mirroring is to build connection and understanding for both therapist and client, and if it’s done well this is exactly what happens. At bottom it’s two human beings in a room building a relationship just like two human beings anywhere else.
Of course the quality of interaction is usually different than it is anywhere else, and mirroring is one example of how. What probably makes it so effective as a therapeutic tool is just how bad most of us are at taking the time to really hear what those around us have to say. If you eavesdrop on any conversation it’s usually laugh out loud funny how transparent both parties are underneath their feigned interest. We are hopelessly egocentric, and even when we’re listening we’re using already forming a response designed to put the spotlight back onto us. Mirroring is a strategy you can easily cultivate in your close relationships and the payoff will be a marked increase in feelings of connection and understanding on both sides, a welcome departure from the norm.