Empathy Basics: Mirroring

Becoming a parent has made me far better at mirroring than coaching ever did. In my house, one of my chief areas of responsibility is dealing with emotional outbursts from our four year old.

She’ll scream “I don’t want to wear an undershirt!” at the top of her lungs.

I take a deep breath. “I know you don’t want to wear an undershirt”.


“Why not?”

“Because it’s doing a bothering thing underneath my shirt and I don’t like it. I DON’T WANNA WEAR IT”.

“I can see that it’s irritating to wear underneath. Who would want to walk around in uncomfortable clothes?

We go on and on. She expresses her frustration, and I try to acknowledge her frustration and what she tells me she is experiencing. In a few minutes she is calm. Oh and we manage to put on an undershirt (a different one).

Sometimes we like to imagine that we are vastly different from who we were as children. We are not. I have seen adults that are deficient in many categories of “maturity” in comparison to my four year old.

When we get older we still have the same emotions we had as children, but the ways in which we act on them and describe them can get increasingly complicated and deceptive to both us and others.

Structure of Complaining

One of the most frequent frustrations coaches relay to me is that they face an overwhelming volume of complaints. In a bygone era, there was considerably more discretion used when making complaints to a coach. Parents were less likely to intervene for their kids. Swimmers were definitely more afraid.

Now we live in the complaint zone. It is useful to take a step back and figure out where complaints come from.

The part of our brain that processes emotion is unconscious, big and powerful. The rational part of our brain is small, conscious and lazy. Jon Haidt has some brilliant works discussing it if you want to know more.

Complaints are formed in the rational part of our brain in response to negative emotions. People feel bad and they seek to explain it. In many cases, they can be way off the mark with why they feel bad, but they have come up with an explanation and they seek relief. So they complain.

If someone complains to you, it is because they think you can help. Now, they may be complaining about you, which makes it pretty hard to not get upset yourself. In any case, there are a few things people often do in these sorts of situations. Each makes sense in their own, but I’m going to suggest mirroring as an alternative

The Defensive Crouch

When someone complains to you, and especially about you, its easy to get in a defensive crouch. This can involve actively engaging them about how wrong they are, hurling back some complaints of your own, or even ignoring them altogether. All are tactics for completely obliterating the person complaining.

The Folding Chair

The opposite of the defensive crouch is where you basically just let somebody fold you up and do whatever they are asking you to do in order to move on from the situation. There may be a few times where you egregiously mess up where this is advisable, but even the folding chair can miss the mark in a few of those because you can skip past the complainants actual experience.

Soft Denial

A middle strategy, that I myself am ashamed to say I have used with many an upset swimmer, is to softly deny whatever they are upset about. You offer evidence that contradicts how they are feeling. Sure they are disappointed in their race: but you are not!

What all of these have in common is that they can feel really honest, and they are in their own way. However, in each case you risk making a resolution that actually brings greater tension rather than any sort of healing.


What is mirroring? It’s a basic relationship technique for responding to people who are upset. It involves actively listening to the person and doing your damnedest to acknowledge what they are experiencing.

What are they feeling? How can they describe it? What did they experience? Try to repeat all of these back to them, and check to see if they agree with your interpretation. Have patience until you can repeat the entirety of what they are trying to tell you in a way that they can sign on to.

Mirroring is basic empathy in that it allows another person to feel like they have heard. They feel their experience acknowledged, and that can be a huge relief. When we are upset, it can be pretty easy to have isolating thoughts. “Maybe it’s just me!” or “No one understands”. These thoughts can perpetuate bad feelings.

Mirroring brings people out of isolation and into a cooperative dialogue with another person. Most people who are complaining just want to be seen and heard. Crucially, mirroring doesn’t mean that you 100% cosign their description of “reality”. You just understand, and that goes a long way.