Mirroring and reflective listening are two ways to develop a better rapport with friends, coworkers, and family members.
Whether you are looking for simple ways to ease conflicts when emotions are running high, or just want the person you are speaking with to know you hear them, these related techniques from the counseling world can improve the bonds of any relationship.
Mirroring as a First Step
A mirror is “a polished or smooth surface that forms images by reflection” and “something that gives a true representation,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.
When it comes to mirroring others, the process is simple. It involves mimicking another’s speech, gestures, or behaviors. The practice happens subconsciously, but can also be done consciously and can help the other person feel seen and heard.
The basic process of mirroring comes quite naturally to many of us. Remember when you were a child and liked to imitate others? Your mom may have rolled her eyes and said, “Monkey see, monkey do.”
While we may have been teasing our siblings this way when we were young, as an adult we can use these skills to better connect with others.
One study found that when a person on a date mirrors the other person’s gestures, such as touching their face or crossing their legs, it can make them appear more attractive to the other person. In the business world, it can also be used to help negotiations and close better deals.
Another study found that waiters who mirror their customers by repeating their orders back to them got a 70 percent larger tip than those who used positive reinforcement, such as saying something like, “Sure, sounds great,” after each order.
You can apply this innate skill and mirror someone by smiling if they smile at you or crossing your arms if they cross theirs. You can also mirror a tone of voice or mirror back to someone the words they’ve just said to you, either exactly or paraphrasing them.
For example, if a friend hangs his head and says, “My boss never listens. I have more work than I can handle and she won’t do anything about it,” you might droop your shoulders a little and respond, “Your boss isn’t listening to you when you say you have more work than you can handle?”
Mirroring is a basic skill that helps you develop empathy for others. Once you have practiced really listening to and mirroring others, you can try reflecting their feelings more deeply.
From Mirroring to Reflecting Listening
Reflective listening, a similar but more advanced type of mirroring, was pioneered by Carl Rogers in the early 1900s and is now used in many therapeutic modalities to help clients better hear their own words, feel more understood, and reveal parts of them they can’t see very clearly. It can also be used outside of therapy in everyday relationships.
Reflective listening requires the listener to actively try to discover how someone feels about his or her situation. It is a true test of a listener’s capacity to be empathetic, as it asks you to stand in someone else’s shoes and focus on the feelings of the other person as opposed to the content.
Once you think you understand what the speaker is feeling, you can clarify by mirroring, and you can respond to them using your own words. However, the intent is to help them explore their feelings more deeply, not to solve a problem or offer a comment.
We can add to our previous example of our friend saying, “My boss never listens. I have more work than I can handle, and I worry what my coworkers will think if I don’t do it all,” by responding, “Sounds like you’re not enjoying your job.”
This gives the person a chance to clarify, “No, I actually like my job, it’s just that my boss never listens and I don’t want to disappoint my team.”
We might then respond, “You seem very frustrated that your boss doesn’t listen and also afraid your coworkers will judge you.”
Rogers referred to this kind of listening as “testing understandings” or “checking perceptions.” The desired result is the person being listened to has the chance to understand their feelings more deeply and feel adequately seen and heard.
Polish Your Mirroring Skills
Mirroring and reflective listening require practice. You can start by observing how you already mirror people in your life or how they mirror you. Then, try it yourself, remembering some of these tips from Skills You Need:
- Be natural
- Listen for the basic message
- Look for nonverbal clues to what the speaker is feeling
- Restate what you have been told in simple terms
- Do not add to the speaker’s meaning
- Avoid irrelevant questions
- Stay focused on the topic at hand
- Always be nonjudgmental
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