As I was learning to Mirror (a skill taught by all Imago therapists), I ran into a specific problem, a stumbling block that took me way back to my childhood. Solving this problem, I think, is critical to obtaining good relationships. The topic has come up recently in chatting with Imago therapists and I am sitting down now to share what I learned.
I have come to say that Mirroring itself is not a goal, but a “skill teaching tool.” I believe that practicing (and I mean “practicing”) guides a person in learning a whole pile of tiny or major skills in communication. The result of those skills is to make the other person “feel heard.” People relax when they believe you are going to hear them. People share more deeply and will even give up arguing if they expect to feel heard. People are inclined to listen to you if they feel heard when they talk to you. ( Think of “feeling heard” as an Interpersonal Feeling.)
And I find the reverse of each sentence is true. People tense up if they believe you are not going to listen. People share very shallowly, or not at all, or argue when they think you won’t listen. People won’t listen to you if they believe you won’t listen to them. (They may fake listening to you, but won’t.)
Practicing mirroring I have found over time makes the skills (of making people feel heard) easy and automatic. Once you are good at them, the skills of mirroring will lead you to feel reliably relaxed in the presence of someone saying “ANYTHING.” Therefore you can comfortably face any conversation.
As I see that mirroring is a skill teaching tool, it is something that you don’t need all the time. You need it for learning. “If you like it and enjoy it, you probably don’t need it. If it bothers you, it is surely trying to teach you some one of the skills you need.” I find it lots of fun to ponder, “How the heck will I mirror that?” This cheerful tone makes talking with the most difficult of people into an adventure of learning. I liken it to playing cards with someone and the delight in saying “new deal!” or “let’s play another hand.”
Problem with Mirroring: Right vs Right
As with so many skills, Mirroring frequently provides a clear sense of “what is the right thing to do.” This, I find, is very useful during the learning process and it is very helpful for a couple who are practicing Mirroring to move toward collaboration about what works for them (what’s right). Coming to “agreement” about how to use this skills training tool seems to be very useful in a) removing ugly blocks to communication and b) replacing those blocks with comforting tools and habits.
But this “right” seems also a problem. I find it extremely easy to say, “I did it right” at a point when the other person “feels unheard.” This becomes a roadblock that I find can collapse the whole effort.
Let me tell a story that may help.
I came out of my childhood with a very powerful fear of abandonment. Yet, on the surface, my parents were very reliable and “always there for me!” How could this be? Where did that “abandonment” come from? One clear source was in the way my mother handled me when I was very small. My dad was a pediatrician – very focused on children and parenting. My mom was a very thoughtful mother. They were loving. They both tended to perfectionism. What I figured out was that mom had a series of beliefs about feeding babies. One belief, probably taught by my dad too, was that babies should experience reliability right from the start. How did they do this? They fed me every four (4) hours. Very reliable, “right!?” Absolutely not! I as a baby experienced feeding as a frightening time. Sometimes I would be hungry after 3 hours and my “loving” mom would starve me for an hour. Sometimes I would be very happy and be sleeping after four hours and she would wake me up to insert food into me when I wanted to sleep. I experienced chaos around feeding while she was being reliable – right?! I felt abandoned, while they thought they were being reliably there for me. A sad way to see this was that they were being reliably there for their beliefs, but not for me. Did they do it “right” – yes. Did they do it “wrong” – yes.
This same nightmare can appear in the training called Mirroring. People mirror in a way they think is right. Their partner says, “Yep, you mirrored correctly.” But the partner doesn’t feel heard! This is the problem and I find couples can get stuck in this dilemma.
This problem can get really awful if the partners are perfectionists (controllers, etc) and competitive. My learning is that competitive people relax when they “win,” and Controllers relax when they get it “right.” But in this situation they “do it right” and “do it wrong.” They “win,” and find out they just “lost.” They get frustrated because they can’t “do it right” or “win” easily — and they give up.
To avoid this for years I have taught two things. I teach mirroring as a transpersonal skill. (That word “transpersonal” usually scares people and gets their attention.) You are successful at mirroring when they “feel heard.” You can often see “the other” feeling heard because of the noises or gestures they make while you are mirroring them. If they nod or make an agreeable sound at the end of each mirrored sentence or even during the mirrored sentence, you are on the right track. I remember that “feeling heard” is a body sensation and will often show. Focusing on Mirroring one sentence of phrase at a time seems critical. Mirroring a whole paragraph or many sentences doesn’t tend to work.
The second thing I teach is the primacy of Validation over Mirroring. If you focus more on Validation and get good at it, the problem in Mirroring seems to slide away. And so while I model Mirroring, and use the skills of Mirroring a lot, I put emphasis on making people feel understood by witnessing their points and their beliefs – their Selves.