Mirroring is the term used by some psychoanalytic thinkers for the therapist's reflecting back to the client an understanding of his inner state, just as the attuned mother does with her infant. The emotional synchronicity is unstated and outside conscious awareness, though a patient may bask in the sense of being deeply acknowledged and understood.

Of everything I learned when reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, I think the idea of mirroring has been the most useful. Though he first mentions it in the context of a psychiatrist-patient relationship, he later discusses using it as a technique to ensure that two people engaged in an argument are actually listening to each other.

One method for effective emotional listening, called “mirroring,” is commonly used in marital therapy. When one partner makes a complaint, the other partner repeats it back in her own words, trying to capture not just the thought, but also the feelings that go with it. The partner mirroring checks with the other to be sure the restatement is on target, and if not, tries again until it is right—something that seems simple, but is surprisingly simple in execution. The effect of being mirrored accurately is not just feeling understood, but having the added sense of being in emotional attunement.

Since reading the book, I've putting this into practice at both home and work. I've avoided a number of situations that might have turned into arguments. More importantly, though, I've avoided potential misunderstandings before they got anywhere close to becoming an argument. Often what I thought someone was saying is not what they were trying to say at all. In normal circumstances, I would have replied to what I thought had been said or walked away without understanding what we'd agreed. Never a good situation, and one that can easily lead to a confrontation. By repeating my version of what was said, I've been able to avoid this.

I was reminded again of why this technique is so powerful when reading Seth Godin's recent post on the easiest way to disagree with someone:

The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation.

He's right. It is hard. It means making a lot of additional effort. It's easy to say “yeah,” without really understanding what someone is saying. It's easy to dismiss someone because you think what they said is idiotic. Repeating what someone said in your own words and hearing that you got it entirely wrong is hard. It's hard to try again until you get it right. It's worth it, though.