Here's Looking at You

by Joe Sinclair

" A mirror should reflect a bit, before casting images."   -  Carl Rogers


Click picture for biodata

Browsing some sources on the Internet, I came across an interesting article by an unknown [sic] author on the subject of "reflection".  It was on the excellent website of free resources provided by Elements UK.

The article began: "If the assumption is correct, that counsellor responses greatly influence both the dynamics of an interview and the client himself, then we should look for a way of responding which will lead to more complete self expression and a more explicit statement on the part of the client. What is needed is a way of responding which affirms the client, conveys a warm attitude, manifests respect for client meanings and experience, facilitates communication and impels the client's further self exploration whilst at the same time increasing the counsellor's understanding. This way of responding is reflection."

I wondered why my memory was being jogged and, for a time, couldn't pin down the precise derivation of the "jog".  Then it came to me.  It was a dispute within the London Co-Counselling Community, at the time that NLP was making rapid inroads into the (then) current approaches to counselling and psychotherapy.  A number of members were convinced that the background of hypnotherapy with its tendency towards manipulation, which formed a large part of the structure of NLP, meant that its use in co-counselling could violate the major tenet of that discipline: namely that "client is in charge".

Happily (at least for devotees of Neuro Linguistic Programming) these objections were ultimately stilled and the "checks and balances" that have traditionally been incorporated into co-counselling were able to deal with any propensity by the counsellor to influence the work of the client.

Indeed, many of the NLP techniques were found to be of immense value when allied to the techniques of co-counselling.  In particular the recognition of where "client is coming from" by the interpretation of speech patterns, body language, and eye movements.  These enabled the practitioner in counsellor role to adopt more useful interventions in assisting the client to achieve the goal of discharge or celebration.[1]

Let us, for a moment, revert to the article by the unknown author.

"Apart from the 'echo response' which offers no evidence of trying to understand the client's world, (echoing is an impersonal procedure and research evidence suggests that it is the effort to understand which is effective, not an imitation of it.) reflection consists of repeating in other words, and more concisely and explicitly, what the client has just said, and doing this in such a way that it wins the client's agreement. Such 'repeating in other words' opens up possibilities in terms of types or degrees of reflection. Just as one counsellor's reflection may be a sensitive reformulation whilst another response to the same client and material may be an indulgence in cliché, so the individual counsellor may manifest degrees of client world understanding by the nature of his reflective response."  [2]

This resonated even more with both co-counselling and NLP practices.  Reflection is, after all, a synonym for what NLP practitioners call "mirroring".  And "repeating in other words" is specifically the sort of injunction applied by counsellors in co-counselling.  "Try contradicting that statement", they might say.  Or "try putting that another way," or "louder".

In co-counselling the basic contract is for counsellors to maintain simple eye contact; to give total attention to the client, but to express no feelings of their own.  One stage up, the normal contract will permit the co-counsellor some participation  in the way of prescribed interventions. It is only in the full contract, that counsellor is permitted to reflect back, to the client, the client's own feelings and patterns of speech and behaviour.  This technique was greatly improved by the NLP prescriptions of mirroring, matching, mismatching, pacing, etc.  Now co-counselling practice could be expanded by these specific techniques as and when each was most appropriate.  And judging the appropriateness of each would be a mark of the co-counsellor's expertise.

Back once more to our unknown author:

[Responses would include]  "Paraphrasing - using words considered equivalent in the client's terms. 

 "Summarising  - using equivalent words but expressing what is essential for the client from the client's point of view.

"Both of the above prove that attention is focused on the client. They are also objective reflections as in a mirror. What the client has said from his own experience comes back to him from outside and he is forced (if the reflection is good) to recognise himself in it. This produces a reactive response which heightens self awareness. At the same time he is assured of being heard with understanding.[3]

One of the aims of Co-Counselling is to be able to discard patterns of behaviour that are not useful, that are outmoded, that restrict spiritual, emotional, and/or intellectual growth.   Another aim is to recognise and reject limiting beliefs that stop us from achieving our desired outcomes.  A further aim is to gain confidence, identify and discard patterns of negativity, and achieve "OK-ness". 

These aims are clearly difficult to attain if we are unable to identify the patterns and layers of  material that keeps us stuck in our state of negativity; the drivers and injunctions that put us there and hold us in thrall.  The beauty of the reflective technique is that, by bringing us face to face with our own patterns of behaviour, as viewed in a mirror, we may become aware of influences we tend to hid from ourselves.

Picture from An ABC of NLP by Joseph Sinclair *


In an article in NLP's Rapport magazine,[4] Philip Harland writes:

"'Reflective questioning' is a use of language that respects one of our fundamental freedoms - the right to make our own mistakes. It neither interprets nor seeks to replace a person's meaning or belief, but rather aims to highlight it. David Grove's 'clean language', as used in metaphor therapy, is an excellent example."

A final few words extracted from the Reflections article:

"Should the impression have been gained that 'reflection' is a multi-faceted technique to be applied to the client then the importance of listening to affect cannot be overemphasised. It is here that for example latent meanings may be heard and it should be remembered that empathy is much more concerned with emotional climate than it is with the use of techniques . . .

. . . "Finally in order to minimise client feelings of threat, attention must be paid to how (e.g. tone of voice, body language) such responses are made. The how of saying must be appropriate to the what is said. Whilst advanced empathic responding may help the client to explore more intimate, personally relevant and emotionally threatening areas of experiences, inaccurate, clumsy or badly timed responses can do more harm than good. Be tentative rather than authoritarian."


[1] For more information, check the author's previous article on the subject of co-counselling in an earlier issue of Nurturing Potential:

[2] There's a very useful echo technique that helps to build rapport, and that is simply to repeat back to the client the last few words they have spoken.  If tone and tempo can match as well as words, this is even more effective.  it certainly beats the hell out of "Uhuh", or "Ummm".  In fact it could even be used with someone speaking an unfamiliar foreign language.  One of the things we were taught in our co-counselling fundamentals course was that an effective basic session could be enjoyed by two people speaking different languages with which they were each unfamiliar.  I can't recall the technique of echoing back the last phrase being mentioned, but my guess is that it would have been very successful.

[3]  If you would like to see the complete Reflections article, you can access it at:

[4]  Rapport, Issue 42, Winter 1998.  The reference was obtained from James Lawley's and Penny Tompkins' excellent website resource where the entire article - and many more - will be found.

* An ABC of NLP by Joseph Sinclair, 2nd edition published by ASPEN, 1998.


Joe Sinclair, the Managing Editor of Nurturing Potential is the author of nine published books, four of them published under his own ASPEN (Authors' Self-Publishing Enterprise) imprint.  In a past life he was a company director of several shipping companies both in the UK and overseas, and is still a non-executive director of the Finnish-owned Containerships Ltd.