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Traps in Reflecting


Techniques > Conversation techniques > Reflecting > Traps in Reflecting

Inaccurate reflection | Premature exposure | Emotional abandonment | Mind-reading | Emotional mismatch | Over-reflecting | See also


When reflecting information to other people, there are a number of traps into which you can fall.

Inaccurate reflection

This is reflecting back to the other person what you think they said, but in fact it is not really what they said.
This indicates that you did not understand what the other person said. If it is particularly different from what they said or maybe misses out significant chunks of information, it may signal to them that you were not listening.

A way of being more accurate is to divide reflection up into smaller chunks. If they are going on at great length, stop them and ask whether you can test your understanding. Apologize as appropriate for any confusion or misunderstanding.

If you have zoned out and not really heard what they have said, ask them to repeat what they have said rather than trying to guess from subsequent talk.

Premature exposure

This is talking about something about which the other person when the other person is not ready to acknowledge that thing.

This may happen when you are talking about the other person's blind or hidden self, which can easily cause them distress of some kind.

If the other person looks uncomfortable about what you are saying, stop. If you are in company then change the subject. If you are with them by themselves, you may want to apologize and check if there is a problem. A simple question is to ask if it is ok to talk about this now.

You can, of course, use premature exposure to get things out into the open, for example where you are doing therapy or where a team member is acting dysfunctionally.

Emotional abandonment

This happens when you move them into an emotional state and then leave them there, for example if you are taking some therapeutic action and then say 'time's up'. It also happens accidentally when you are talking with them about something that emotionally arouses them and then you change the subject without letting them get closure.

This will leave them in an emotional state from which they find it difficult to return to 'normality'. It is the psychological equivalent of a surgeon opening someone up then going to dinner.


Mind-reading happens when you start to tell the other person what they are thinking. Even worse is telling what they are feeling. Only the person

This happens either when you mis-read signals or when you project out into the future and get this wrong.

If you get it right, this is

Rather than saying 'you are unhappy', it is more effective to phrase your perceptions of their thoughts and feelings as a perception, not as an absolute statement, thus you might say 'you look unhappy' or 'I think you are unhappy'.

Emotional mismatch

When you reflect something, this includes the intensity of emotions being experienced by the other person. Emotional mismatch occurs when you either assume that they are in a more aroused state or less aroused state than they actually are.

Thus if you say 'you sound really sad' and they reply 'no, I'm just a bit unhappy', this indicates you have probably over-estimated their emotional state (although this can also stem from premature exposure). The reverse can also happen, for example where you say 'you sound a bit unhappy' and they say (often with increased emotion) 'No! I am really unhappy'.


Reflecting back to the other person what they have said is generally a very effective conversational technique. However, if you over-do this, you can tip the conversational exchange into a state of imbalance, where all you are talking about is them. Even people who like to talk about themselves may well get uncomfortable about this.

Do take a balanced approach, exposing something of yourself and your own feelings from time to time, even if the overall balance is still not 50%. In practice, it generally works better to listen more than you speak. The old adage of 'two eyes, two ears and one mouth' implies talking for about 20% of the time. The actual best balance will vary with the person and the conversation, but if in doubt, listen and reflect more, throwing in your stuff now and again to keep the social exchange going.

See also


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