This Surprisingly Simple Trick Can Make You A Better Listener

In general, people don’t really want advice (even when they ask for it). They just want to feel heard.

This Surprisingly Simple Trick Can Make You A Better Listener
[Photo: Flickr user Pascal Maramis]

“This is stupid and a total waste of my time!”


I didn’t say that, but was I thinking it. I had taken an entire day off work for this group of CEOs that I’d recently joined. We were supposed to meet on a monthly basis, but I had to be trained first. So here I was attending “Forum Training” with seven other entrepreneurs, where I’d just been taught about something called “mirroring.”

What It’s Like To Feel Heard

Mirroring, we were told, means repeating back exactly what someone else has said, word for word, preceded by “I hear you saying” or “I heard you say.” For example, if I heard a forum member say, “I’m feeling worried about losing our biggest client,” I would “mirror” that person by replying: “I hear you saying you’re feeling worried about losing your biggest client.”

In those few minutes after we were taught how to mirror and began practicing it, I was cynical. I’d just spent thousands of dollars to join this organization and had taken an entire precious day off from work to attend this training, and I felt like I was back in kindergarten. What good could saying the exact words back to someone possibly do? It seemed frivolous, fake—actually, it felt really stupid.

Then it was my turn to be mirrored, and everything changed.

I talked for several minutes about pretty deep personal stuff and feelings about those issues. Afterward, we went around the table, and each person mirrored me by repeating one thing he or she heard me say:

I heard you say you’ve struggled all of your life with weight and that it feels like a constant battle.

I heard you saying you’ve had to deal with your dad’s bipolar disorder for over 20 years and that sometimes it feels really lonely.

I heard you say you were in love with a married woman and that felt impossible at the time but that eventually you let her go, and then you ended up together, and that felt amazing.

“Wow,” I thought. I felt heard. I felt listened to. I felt that they really cared about me–or at least about what I had to say about myself. I’d just met these people that morning, and I felt surprisingly close to them, all thanks to an amazingly straightforward (you might even say superficial) speaking technique.


Why Mirroring Works (And When It Doesn’t)

But mirroring isn’t as superficial as I’d thought, even if it is really simple. As it turns out, it’s is a massively powerful shortcut for connecting deeply to people. It’s easier said than done, though. Simply repeating back what you’re hearing can help you forge a bond with other people and win their trust, but it also can be interpreted as insincere and inauthentic–patronizing, even.

There’s only one very simple solution to this: You have to actually care about whatever statement or idea you’re mirroring.

If you repeat back out loud what you’re hearing in a robotic monotone, people aren’t going to believe you actually care about what they’re saying. But if you repeat it back with emotion, with an emphasis on the important words and feelings that were just spoken, you give it meaning. You help the other person feel heard and listened to. You demonstrate that you care.

In general, people don’t really want advice—even when they ask for it. They just want to feel heard. As you practice mirroring, you will help people feel heard, and they will love you for it. Focus on really emphasizing the “feeling words” you hear as well; mirroring feelings is much more valuable than mirroring thoughts.

Of course, the greater the emotional depth of the conversation, the more powerful this technique can be. If someone says, “I’m feeling okay. Took the kids to school and did some laundry,” simply mirroring back, “I hear you say you’re feeling okay after taking the kids to school and doing some laundry” won’t make as big an impact as mirroring a deeper statement would. Even so–as ridiculous as it seemed to me at first and as ridiculous as you may think it is–mirroring is an incredible tool for connecting with others.

Watch Your Words—And Practice Them

Two important caveats: First, don’t bungle their words. Remember, the reason mirroring is so powerful is that the person being mirrored feels totally heard. If she says, “I’m upset over the work that you did; it’s sloppy,” and you reply with “I hear you; you’re angry with me over poorly done work,” it’s not quite the same–you’ve reinterpreted her idea in your own words. She may not feel you were listening all that carefully. After all, mirroring isn’t just about giving the impression of being a good listener, it actually helps turn you into one.


Second, avoid using “but.” Imagine you’re angry because your husband said he’d take out the garbage and forgot to do it. You tell him, “I’m angry because you said you’d take the garbage out and you didn’t,” and he replies, “I hear you. You’re angry that I said I would take the garbage out and didn’t.” Now imagine that he adds, “But I’ve been really busy with work stuff, and it just slipped my mind.” His attempt at mirroring has been ruined by just one word. No buts!

So grab a friend or close colleague and practice. Sit face to face and have your partner share how she’s doing, including her highs and lows in recent weeks and the feelings associated with those events. After a few minutes, share a couple of mirroring statements that are based on what you heard. Ask your partner how well you did. Then switch roles. (It feels great to be mirrored, too.)

You can experiment with using mirroring particularly in situations where someone’s upset, whether it’s at work or at home. Remember to focus on repeating back the feelings and what you heard word for word. It can be a powerful method for defusing tensions. As you get better at it, you may find that people respond to you better–you’ll sharpen your listening skills and make people feel heard. Over time, they’ll remember you as the one who gets them, the person who really cares.

This article is adapted from The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want (Crown Business, March 2016) by New York Times–best-selling author Dave Kerpen, the CEO of Likable Local, a social media software company.