Mirroring as a Training Tool

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The Miter Box Analogy

© Al Turtle 2002 

As I teach individuals and couples the use of Mirroring, I often point to the joints in the frame for my whiteboard.  I say, “What is this? It is a miter joint. There are four of them in this frame and there are 8 miter cuts that made them.  What is the angle of the cut?  Yep, 45 degrees.  Not 41, nor 53 degrees. Exactly 45.  

Now, how does a person reliably cut a 45 degree cut?  You use a miter box, a wooden frame that holds the saw at 45 degrees from the wood while you cut.  You don’t cut with a miter box.  You cut with a saw.  But you use the miter box to orient your saw correctly. 

Mirroring is a “miter box” for communication.  It orients the receiver  and the sender at exactly the right angle for perfect sharing.  Just as in cutting miter joints, there is always a correct "angle" for a receiver to be in when someone starts to speak.  There is a correct "angle" for a sender to be in when they want someone to hear them.


One day, I was working with a new couple – third session.  The man hated mirroring.  “It was awkward,” he said. I told him my miter box analogy.   He looked at me for a minute, and silently his eyes filled with tears.  I hesitated, trying to decide if I should just let him weep or whether I would use this as an opportunity to teach the skill of “what to do when your partner cries.”   I had no idea what sadness had been triggered by my analogy.

He held back the tears, and I waited.  Then he told the following story.

“When I was a little boy, my grandfather was a carpenter.  And he was the only man in my life that I really loved or felt safe with.  He was so kind to me.  In those days, carpenters could not go to a store to buy their saws.  They had to make them.  Ordered the steel from Germany, I think.  And each carpenter made their own tool box to carefully store and protect their beautiful tools.  Grandfather would let me open his tool box and look at his saws anytime I wanted.  They were beautiful, shiny, always clean. Hmm, I wonder what happened to his tool box.” 

“My grandfather died when I was nine.  I was very alone.” (He paused to swallow.  The room was silent.)

“I don't know if you know but in those days they would hire a carpenter based on whether he could cut a miter joint with a saw and without any other tool to help.  No miter box during the test!  If you could cut a 45 degree by eye and hand, you got the job.  If you couldn’t….. well, down the road.” 

“I tried cutting with grandpa’s saw, but never got a miter joint.  He made a miter box for me.  Told me to practice with it a thousand times – a thousand cuttings.  Then he said I should practice another thousand times cutting wood with a pencil line showing the correct angle for the cut.  Then he said I would be able to cut miter joints without any help.”  

My client paused  again. The room was very quiet.  Then he looked up at me, and said, “So it is just a matter of discipline.  I get it. I can do that. Ok, show me again.” 


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