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:

“Simple” mirroring.

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

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