My recent posts have focused on communicating about theology, drawing upon experiences I’ve had in teaching a class called Bridging the God Gap. Class participants have tried writing constructive responses to hostile comments about religion. Some responses seemed helpful and some did not, but virtually no one employed one of the most constructive communication strategies of all:
I put scare-quotes around simple because even though the concept of mirroring is easy to understand, it is quite difficult to carry out in practice. In this active-listening approach, you repeat back what your friend has just said to you – usually not verbatim, but using slightly different words that convey his/her message accurately.
When this is done right, your friend will enjoy the rare experience of feeling understood. Most people appreciate this, and become more relaxed and less defensive. It’s a great way to establish rapport.
The challenge is to stick to what she/he has said, without adding anything. For example, suppose you are an atheist, and someone says, “If God doesn’t exist, there’s nothing stopping us from doing all sorts of horrible things.” You might reply,
“You think people like me have no morals and commit terrible crimes.”
No. You’re turning your friend’s general comment into a personal attack on you. How about:
“You think we have to cling to religious faith to stop ourselves from doing evil.”
Huh-uh. This comment editorializes too much to count as mirroring. “Cling to” implies weakness, childishness, and the person did not say, “We need childlike faith.”
A more exact response might be:
“You’re concerned that people might do terrible things if there is no God.”
Notice that this statement attempts to mirror the feeling (concern) as well as factual content. That’s tricky, but comments about religion often convey emotions, and mirroring can include this component.
Now suppose you believe in God and someone says, “Freud was right. Religion takes our emotional need for a strong parent and projects it into the sky.”
An editorializing reply: “So you agree with the atheist Freud that there is no basis for religion other than fantasy and wish-fulfillment.” Your friend may or may not think this is so, but that’s not what was said. Furthermore, generalizing from “one of the bases of religion is irrational” to “all bases of religion are irrational” tends to heat up the discussion unnecessarily.
A more faithful mirroring-reply: “You agree with Freud that people want to lean on a parent-figure, and religion helps fulfill this need.”
Try it yourself. Think of other ways of responding to the statements listed above, or the examples I’ve used in my “Hot Potato” postings during the past few weeks. I’d appreciate reading your replies.
Roger Christan Schriner
To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.
So, you think mirroring is a good way to show empathy with the other person’s point of view, right, and that this will prepare the ground for effective dialogue? 🙂
I guess this would be a good strategy when you can’t think of any non-critical response to a statement like “I think homosexuality is wrong”! Would it be morally OK to do this when you feel that the person is supporting a criminal act, e.g. if they said “I think homosexuals should be stoned to death”? Is it always right to build rapport?
Hmmm, do I detect a touch of skepticism? I can understand that mirroring may seem like a weak response, but it’s actually quite powerful. However if someone literally advocated stoning gays I would suspect that I was dealing with a disturbed individual, and I’d shift to my “response to extreme dysfunction” mode. If I suspected that this person was a potential killer, for example, trying to communicate about religion would become a secondary consideration.
On the other hand, if someone says, “I think homosexuality is wrong,” I might very well mirror this comment: “So as far as you’re concerned, homosexuality is just wrong?” At that point he/she might elaborate further, and that would give me more to respond to. I might even ask for elaboration: “I’m interested to know why you feel that way.” There are many reasons for thinking gay sex is sinful (but no valid reasons, in my opinion.) I would want to tailor my comments to the specific reasons for holding this belief rather than just offering a generic response. So one benefit of mirroring is that it draws out a person’s thoughts and feelings in helpful detail. And I’d definitely make my views known after finding out more about my friend’s perspective.