This is my second time recording today because this morning I felt horrible. I was doing one of my weekly 40-hour fasts and I must have weird blood sugar crash because I did not feel good. I went to the city for a photo shoot with an amazing photographer named Elisa Cicanelli for a project she’s working on with Allen Saakyan. It’s a book of portraits of influencers featured on his show The Simulation Series which I was a guest on a few weeks ago. So I’m back now and picking it back up; Today I want to talk about Mirroring.
In last weeks episode, my guest Sil Reynolds talked about the power of mirroring as a tool for keeping the connection with our teen daughters strong as they begin to individuate. I want to go deeper into that as skill because it’s my belief that tactically it’s one of the most straightforward communication skills to learn, one of the most needed and pragmatically it’s one of the most profound. It can have such enormous impact when it’s built into the communication patterns and habits of a relationship and it’s also a great tool to use when there is tension or when you don’t feel understood in your relationship.
The concept of Mirroring is often associated with forms of nonverbal communication and social scientists study and a lot of this comes out in the work exploring mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are the cells in the brain that activate both when we do something and also when we see someone else do the same action. Mirror neurons are so interesting because somehow, and it’s not completely understood how they merge the experience of seeing with the experience of doing and the brain doesn’t necessarily make a clear distinction between the two. In human being and other primates when they engage in similar postures, gestures, facial expressions or breathing it turns out, feel more connected as a result of the mirror neurons coding or blending the actions of the other.
In research by Kuhn and others in 2010, it was discovered that when someone mirrors your behavior, the areas of your brain that activate through mirror neurons are the same ones that process rewards and make you feel good. And so this information, namely that mirror neurons create a merging between the seeing of an action and the doing of it which in turn creates connection and a feeling of warmth between the two people.
Over time it seems like the sales industry and people hoping to pick-up or endear themselves to others for the purpose of romantic or sexual relationships discovered that it was possible to intentionally use mirror neurons and physical mimicry to manipulate the feelings others and to create connection which they then use to sell you stuff or get you to like them more. If you do a search online on the topic of mirroring you’ll get all kinds of insights into that form of mirror neuron manipulation, which can be a bit creepy.
That is related to but not the exact aspect or implementation of mirroring skills I want to talk about today.
Rather I want to give you an overview and maybe some examples and possibly a role-play of a mirroring process that is more intentional, conscious…a verbal exercise in mirroring in relationship that is a powerful way or sustaining rapport and deepening understanding between two people who ultimately care about each other. It’s an exercise I’ve experienced in many relationship and communication skills classes and systems but I’ve most often seen it ascribed to Harville Hendrix. So I’m not sure if he is the original source but he’s certainly codified the process in a way that is simple enough to follow and which works really well.
The process as outlined by Harville Hendrix is a 3-step dialogue exercise you can do with your partner or with a close family member or any loved one to communicate about an issue or a disagreement that might be in the way of intimacy, fulfillment, and connection in your relationship. I’m going to run through the entire 3-step process but mostly I’m going to focus on mirroring, which is the first step, or reflecting because I think it’s the starting point and the central piece. It’s the part that supports listening to your partner without distorting his or her thoughts or feelings.
Because it’s one thing to listen….and truthfully most of us don’t do it very well, even at the best of times. And it’s another thing to listen actively and effectively which creates the possibility of our loved ones feeling seen and understood. And feeling seen and understood is such a healing experience and the basis for human connection and deep relationship.
Describing a conversation between two people can be a little confusing so in order to give another perspective on this process and to help me roleplay it I asked my long-time and very dear Victoria Lorient-Faibish to jump on the phone with me to see if we could illustrate how this might work. I asked her to introduce herself:
“Hi there, I’m Victoria Lorient-Faibish. I’m a registered psychotherapist. I’m also a holistic psychotherapist. And my website is VisualizationWorks.com because of course visualization does work.”
I asked Victoria to give her perspective, her overview of the Mirroring process.
“I like to call in Initiate and Reflect because it describes what people are doing…they are initiating and then their partner is reflecting.”
Lisa: The Mirroring part first requires an agreement. So say for example I’m with my husband and I’m feeling frustrated by our communication because he’s not understanding what I’m saying, I can interject by saying “would you be willing to mirror me”.
Victoria: “Permission is the first thing that needs to happen. So a person might say I would like to initiate can you reflect? If they say “no” they need to say “not right today but I can tomorrow or not right now but I can in an hour. They need to commit to some time frame to come back to. If they say, yes, great”.
At this point, the sender tells their partner the message they want them to hear and it’s a very prescribed formula.
So, it’s a rather simple process…but it’s a bit intricate in its execution.
Lisa: The message should start with “I feel…and it should describe a feeling…not a thought.”
Victoria: I tell people in the office to memorize this simple thing and I have them repeat over and over: “I feel because I think. I feel because I think”. And I have them repeat it because that’s the essence of it.
Here’s a review of the Mirroring Process:
First an agreement. The sender can ask to be reflected or the other can offer to mirror them. From the senders perspective it goes something like this:
- Sender: Tells your partner the message you would like them to hear. The message should follow this format: “I feel ______________(feeling not a thought) because I think ______________”. During the part of the process, the receiver listens and only listens.
- Then the partner reflects back the message using the same language if possible. This sounds something like “So I think you’re saying that you feel _____________ because you think ______________. Is that right?”
- If the sender feels the partner didn’t repeat back the message 100% accurately they say, “no, I said I feel ______________(feeling not a thought) because I think ______________”.
- The sender reflects back the message until the sender says, “Yes, that is correct”.
- Once confirmed as accurate, the reflector asks “Is there more?” This process continues until everything has been said accurately and completely as determined by the sender.
The sender should keep it reasonably brief so the reflector is able to repeat it back.
Victoria: So one of the really important things that I relay to people is that agreement is not the goal of the exercise. What is most important is that people are really indicating that they are hearing and listening and understanding what their partner is saying very specifically. They may not agree with it but they heard it, they listened to it and they understood it. That is a very healing aspect to this particular exercise for couples that are going around in circles in a conflict that is nonsensical.
Once the message has been communicated fully and accurately, the reflector asks “Is there more?” And often there is more. And then the sender continues on until the sender feels 100% percent complete.
[At this point in the conversation, Victoria and Lisa did a role-play of the exercise typical of an exchange Victoria often facilitates in her office.]
When the receiver repeats it back exactly as the shared, without any additional information, the sender often relaxes in a palpable way. When a person feels heard and understood, they relax.
Victoria: We’re training people to snap into their adult self and process feelings and thoughts in this systematic way. It can be very difficult for people. They find it a bit contrived. But once they get used to it they find it extremely useful and a safe harbor for conflict.
Thank you, Victoria for walking us through a role play. I look forward to having you back on the show in the near future to go more into depth on another topic.
Victoria: I can’t wait. This was so great. Thank you so much for having me on.
Once the sender has approved the statement, there’s the option to switch roles and repeat the exercise although it is not specifically necessary. If the receiver also feels the need to be heard they can ask to be mirrored, too and the circumstance can be reversed.
In the Imago process as per Harville Hendrix and this is outlined in the book “Getting the Love You Want” there are two more steps in the process and they are super important and powerful too. Even though I’m focusing on Step One, the Mirroring process, I’ll briefly touch on the other two. And those steps are Validate and Empathize. It’s important to know that it’s possible to validate another person’s feelings even if you don’t feel the same way or even if you don’t specifically agree with them. So, the receivers job at this point is to simply recognize the logical sense that exists between the sender’s feeling and the thought that can created it.
So for example, I can see how you would feel upset if you think that I don’t put any energy into our relationship. That’s an example. The process is:
“I could see how you could feel _______________ if you think _________________”.
Empathy, the final step, the reflector takes a guess as to what they imagine the sender might be feeling in addition to what has already been said. When sending empathy, it is fine to say something such as: “I can imagine you might also feel like __________.” But then make sure to check in by asking: “Is that correct. Is that how you feel?”
It’s my opinion that ending with Thank You is a great way to complete this process.
That’s a wrap on the 3 steps of Mirroring as a relationship building rescue or toolkit for trouble communication or challenging communication. I hope that overview has been useful for you. There will be in the Show Notes a link to a step-by-step process map you can print out to walk you through the process to simplify it and to give you some of the language. I really recommend using this process before you need it so maybe do it as a relationship connection exercise with your partner or with your child with the focus of listening in to something that is going on in their life. Because it’s the kind of thing that comes much more easily when you’re in the practice or the habit of using it. If you have any feedback on how this works or if you have any questions please reach out to me as always by email at hey at lisabl.com. I love to hear from you.
I really want the show to be interactive and I want to know how I can support you, and what’s working for you, what’s interesting to you. What you’d like to see and how we can be better connected. To that end, it would be great if you could go to Facebook and “like” the Super Power U page which I’ll link to in the show notes and join the Super Power U Tribe, although that will be changing because as my friend Susan Washington has pointed out the word “tribe” has been somewhat appropriated from both First Nations and African culture. So I”m looking for a new name for that group which will also be expanding in the near future.
I also want to have a segment on the show where I feature listener Super Powers. There’s a speakpipe coming where you’ll be able to record messages to me right on the website but for now, you could record into your voice recorder and sending me a sound file by email…or simply write an email I can read. Here’s what I’m looking for for this ongoing segment:
1. Your Name
2. Your show or your business so I can give you a shout out
3. What you see as your Super Power and how it shows up in your life.
You can send by email with the title “Listener Super Power”. You can DM on the Facebook page. You can record it and send to me so I can include it in upcoming segments…but I really do want to share my listener Super Powers so please do reach out share so I can celebrate you on the show.
That’s it for now. Next week I’ll have a report back on the KC Baker WomanSpeak Festival and will give you more info about the Women’s Speaking Circle coming to the bay area. And you can look forward to next week’s guest Ankit Shah the founder of Tea with Strangers. So until next week be loving and gentle with YOURself It’s easy to forget and so important to remember.
Sending you love.