When I first saw a Rubenfeld Synergy session, it was Joe Weldon, Master Synergist and possibly my greatest teacher, conducting it. One of the first things I noticed – and it annoyed me at first – was how he kept repeating back things that the client said. Joe might ask the client what she noticed as she was lying on the table at the beginning of the session. “I’m a little sore today,” she might say, “but it feels good, because I know I exercised yesterday.” “So you’re a little sore today,” he might repeat, “and it feels good because you know you exercised yesterday.” “Yeah,” she’d say with a sigh. “Yeah, yeah,” he’d say, a favorite verbal tic of his that I’ve picked up myself in sessions. “Yeah. So what else do you notice?”
At the beginning, I thought, what the hell is he doing? If I were on the table or in a therapy session and the guy just kept parroting back what I was saying? That’d drive me nuts! But over time, I began to notice all of the subtle power of reflection.
To be clear, Rubenfeld Synergists and other healing professionals who use this technique (Rogerian psychotherapists, Gestalt folks, and others) call it mirroring or reflection rather than parroting or repetition. The reason for this is that we are not simply repeating what the client says. We are using as close to the exact words of the client as we can, though generally switching ‘I’s for ‘you’s in appropriate places. A simple repetition, like a recording, loses something of its fidelity, and doesn’t offer us anything but our own voices back to us. We may not like how we sound, we may cringe, or we may strive to improve the next time. It is useful, but not transformative in the moment. With a reflection, though, as in a mirror or a lake, we are showing the client an almost-true image, one shifted by changing water and light, and active in the moment – one the client can experience dynamically, see more clearly, and change at will.
What, then, does it do for a client when we reflect their verbal expressions? Anyone who has gone to a job interview knows that physical mirroring is a basic technique of connection, and that taking on a similar posture to your interlocutor can help them relate to you better. Verbal reflection serves a similar function, but there are others.
1. Making the client feel heard. As the principle says, much of this is about validating the client’s experience. When the Synergist repeats, with care, what the client has said, the client knows that what she has said has been heard and taken in.
2. Mining and clarifying the important data. The Synergist doesn’t repeat everything; often he will pick the thing that sounds most important. Sometimes the Synergist will be wrong about this; we’re not superheroes or mind readers, though our intuition does tend to be turned to a higher setting. Sometimes a client will go on and on about his troubles with work, at home, with life in general, and an entire history of physical ailments, until the Synergist may even need to gently stop the client talking. Perhaps out of that the Synergist will repeat, “Yeah. It’s been a really hard year.” And the client may take a breath for himself, and begin to know that someone cares and that maybe getting out every detail isn’t as important.
3. Checking for accuracy. Sometimes, reflection is about helping a client hear herself. Many of us go around talking all the time, unaware of what we’re really saying. “I have a bad back, I always have,” a client might say, and I’d say, “You have a bad back, you always have,” and maybe put a little question mark on the end. “What’s bad about it?” I might ask next. When I hear this I wonder who told this woman she was bad when she was young, or at least, how she is limiting herself by thinking of her back this way. If I can make the client hear the judgment she’s putting on herself, the continued message to the back that it is “bad,” well, then we’ve gotten somewhere. Another thing that happens sometimes is a client will hear something reflected and say, “I didn’t say that!…Did I?” Helping clients hear what they’re actually saying can help them clarify for themselves what they want to be saying, and can help them shake free of patterns of thought that may be harming them.
4. Offering possibilities. One change you may have noticed in the first example reflection in this post was the shift from “but” to “and.” This was an early habit we were taught to get into, and it can be simple and powerful. It is a human habit to put things in contrast to one another: I feel sore but good, I’m sad but I know it’s for the best, as though we’re meant to feel one thing and not the other, as though the heart can’t contain that kind of paradox. In RSM there is room for everything: we bring as much as we can to awareness, because unacknowledged feelings stultify us and stunt our growth. “You feel sad, and you know it’s for the best,” I would say to that second statement, emphasizing the “and” just a little. And maybe the client could begin to hear that while moving on is important (It’s for the best), grieving is equally important (I feel sad). Acknowledging both sides of the “but” by switching it to an “and” opens possibilities for fully experiencing your truth.
5. Deepening experience. Finally, reflecting something back to the client can slow a moment down and allow the truth of the statement to settle and deepen. When tears come in a session, often it is after the client says something very close to his core, and the Synergist repeats it back. “I just don’t want to do it anymore!” the client says, at the end of her rope. “You just don’t want to do it anymore,” the Synergist says, letting each word land, supporting the client at her shoulder. And perhaps that shoulder tightens for a moment and then softens. “Yeah. You just don’t want to do it anymore.” “No. I don’t.” The voice is soft now, the tears start to come. This is just an example, but it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen over and over: staying with the key point of a client’s expression, reflecting it back to them, letting them hear it and feel it resonate in them and feel supported in it, can let bound-up emotions start to move, and bring the client a step closer to freedom.