What is a Reflection / Empathy Guess?

Another excerpt of an email conversation!


in our conversation last night, i found myself tripping up on
offering you a reflection of your feelings vs telling stories.

a classic, textbook reflection / empathy / mirroring is simply 2 parts:

Feeling + Need + ?

(hehehe..3parts, it helps if it’s a question, not a statement).

Ex: are you (feeling) concerned because you need to trust you’re safe?
Ex: are you (feeling) flustered because you’d like clarity?

If it’s a statement, you revert to education rather than inviting the other to check in with themselves. The idea behind empathic reflections/mirroring is not only about mutual understanding; it also helps the speaker get self-connected and reduce emotional hijack. But if you say it as a statement (ex: “Oh i get it you’re concerned b/c you want to be safe” the other person may not take it well “stop psychoanalyzing me!” or “don’t tell me who i am!!”). Keeping it as a question helps them hear your guess as just that – a guess – which helps them to self-connect while they check out the guess.

Meanwhile, the whole “Are you Feeling because you Need XYZ” — this crap gets canned and corny really quick, so once we get the F/N base, we can go a bit more colloquial:

Ex: so do i get that you’re upset b/c you really want companionship?
Ex: are you frustrated b/c you’d prefer to have more confidence i hear you?

One of the tricks of empathic reflection is NOT getting yourself caught into it. This is NOT about you, this is NOT about including you. Ex: “are you frustrated because i interrupted you” is not an empathy guess, it’s a mistake of you confusing strategy (what you did) with need (what stimulates the other person’s frustration). Instead, try “are you frustrated because YOU really want to be heard?”

This also helps us, as listener, get out of the blame-game, because we’re not confusing us with the internal experience of the other.

replace “are you irritated b/c you want me to not interrupt you”
with “are you irritated b/c you dearly want space to speak”

More colloquial flow comes when we get the concept beyond the form:

“Yeah, part of what i get is that when you’re not getting the kind of companionship you want, it’s frustrating for you and you feel lonely…you really WANT that companionship….is that right?”

Here i have the Feeling (frustrated, lonely) and the need (companionship), but it’s completely outside the form of “are you F b/c you N…?”

Here’s another:

“I imagine it’s confusing for you to not know what to do, because you’d really like the clarity and the sense of understanding how to move forward. Is that right?”

Again I have the Feeling (confusion) and the need (clarity, understanding), and it’s still in the form of inquiry (“is that right?”), but it’s totally out of the form of “F + N + ?”.

The common habits we’re trained include lots of slippery slopes. One, is we mix up “feel like’ and “feel that” with “feelings”. When we start with “feel like’ or “feel as if” – whatever comes next will be a thought, an image, a story. “I feel like she’s being an idiot”. That’s not a “feeling”, feelings are internal emotions separate from others. I can feel sad, happy, delighted, irritated, confused, anxious. These are “feelings”. “I feel like this just isn’t going to work” isn’t a “feeling”, it’s a thought, an assessment, a conclusion your mind has come to. When we talk about our thoughts, assessments, and conclusions, we risk putting forward points for debate. When we talk about our feelings, we’re merely stating internal states; who can argue with that. “I’m feeling sad.” “No you’re not!”


So by talking about feelings (not thoughts, stories, or assessments) we make it easier for others to hear our deepest intentions without distraction.

Likewise, we can go a slippery slope on the Needs bit, too. Ex: “I need you to shut up” is not a need, it’s what i want as a strategy. Anytime we follow “need” with “you/him/her/me” or say “need to”, odds are we’re ending with a strategy. Just like thoughts, when we talk about strategies instead of underlying universal needs, we have room for combat, debate, argument.

Ex: “I need you to clean your room” / “I don’t want to!!”
instead, try “I dearly need order” (now we can collaborate on a strategy to meet your need in a way that works for both of us.

When we talk, think, and ask questions in terms of NEEDS inquiry, we have a powerful tool for creativity and resourcefulness; I like to say there are 10K strategies to meet a need. But when we talk in terms of thoughts, strategies, and assessments, we quickly paint ourselves into a corner that’s hard to get out of.

Ex: “I just feel like this isn’t working” (doesn’t give me options, does it?)
Ex: “I am SO frustrated – I really want this to be easier for us!!” (now you can make a request that will help things get easier) “Can we just take a breath and hold hands for a few minutes while we think up ideas?”

So – bottom line:

Empathy guess / reflection / mirroring in TIA consists of 90% needs-awareness, 10% emotional awareness (cuz it helps us more powerfully express the depth of the yearning).

Ex: Are you F b/c you N….?
Ex: Are you delighted because you’ve had so much play this week?
Ex: I imagine you’re sad, cuz you want more support, huh?
Ex: Is it that you’re bewildered b/c you’d really like to get a handle on what’s going on? (“get a handle on” is colloquial for “understanding”/”clarity”).

Does this help you make more sense of what i’m hoping for when i say i need “reflection”, or “empathy”?


1 Response to “What is a Reflection / Empathy Guess?”

  1. 1 Mark Matousek October 17, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    dear gail,
    i’ve just been alerted to your blog, which i think is FABULOUS and on the money! fear-based living is no life at all — it’s a travesty of love and justice — a vast oversight of our gifts and ingenuity — and a waste of all the beauty we’re given. apparently, the original meaning of the word ‘sin’ was ‘to miss the mark’ — a far cry from the definition given by moralist religion(s) — and fear-based consciousness is exactly that: a fundamental missing of the mark regardly why we’re on this planet and what we can do with experience. i salute you for your eloquence and diligence in getting this message across. i’m an author who’s been writing about these things for 20+ years now — my most recent book’s a study of exactly this trans-fear phenomenon — so it’s good to meet a fellow traveler who’s thrown her hat in with the same team.

    wishing you all good things,
    mark matousek

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