To listen well, get curious


A common piece of interacting-with-people advice goes: “often when people complain, they don’t want help, they just want you to listen!”

For instance, Nonviolent Communication: Nonviolent Communication, ch. 7.

It is often frustrating for someone needing empathy to have us assume that they want reassurance or “fix-it” advice.

Active Listening: Active Listening, p. 2

Similarly, advice and information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression and the development of a creative relationship.

You can find similar advice in most books on relationships, people management, etc.

This always used to seem silly to me. If I complain at my partner and she “just listens,” I’ve accomplished nothing except maybe made her empathetically sad. When I complain at people, I want results, not to grouse into the void! Empirically, I did notice that I usually got better results from listening than from giving advice. So I inferred that this advice was true for other people, but not me, because other people didn’t actually want to fix their problems.

Frequently the “just listen” advice comes with tactical tips, like “reflect what people said back to you to prove that you’re listening.” For instance, consider these example dialogues from Nonviolent Communication:§§ Nonviolent Communication, Chapter 7, Exercise 5.5, 5.6 and solutions.

Person A: How could you say a thing like that to me?

Person B: Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do what you requested?


Person A: I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him.

Person B: So you’re feeling furious because you would like him to be around more than he is?

I say this with great respect for Nonviolent Communication, but these sound like a 1970s-era chatbot. If I were Person A in either of these dialogues my next line would be “yes, you dingbat—can you turn the nonviolence down a couple notches?” I’d feel alienated knowing that someone is going through their NVC checklist on me.

Recently, I realized why people keep giving this weird-seeming advice. Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.

The generator is curiosity.

When I’ve listened the most effectively to people, it’s because I was intensely curious—I was trying to build a detailed, precise understanding of what was going on in their head. When a friend says, “I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him,” that one sentence has a huge amount underneath. How often does she need him? What does she need him for? Why isn’t he around? Have they talked about it? If so, what did he say? If not, why not?

It turns out that reality has a surprising amount of detail, and those details can matter a lot to figuring out what the root problem or best solution is. So if I want to help, I can’t treat those details as a black box: I need to open it up and see the gears inside. Otherwise, anything I suggest will be wrong—or even if it’s right, I won’t have enough “shared language” with my friend for it to land correctly.

Some stories from recent memory:

  • When we started doing a pair programming rotation at Wave, I suggested that, to make scheduling easier, we designate a default time when pairing sessions would happen. A coworker objected that this seemed authoritarian. I was extremely puzzled, but they’d previously mentioned being an anarchist, so I was tempted to just chalk it up to a political disagreement and move on. But instead I tried to get curious and explore more deeply whatever “political” models were generating that disagreement. After a lot of digging into what was or wasn’t authoritarian for them and why, it turned out the disagreement was because they’d missed the word “default” and thought I was suggesting a single mandatory time for pair programming.

  • My partner, Eve, wrote a post about Polish attitudes about sex, with some details that upset her (Polish) parents. When her parents told her that, she initially got very stressed about having to have a conversation to calm them down. I thought she shouldn’t be worried and the conversation would be fine, but of course just telling her that wasn’t very helpful. Instead, I summoned up my curiosity and asked lots of questions about her relationship with her parents, her parents’ relationship with each other, each of their relationships with Catholicism, etc. By the end of the conversation, after thinking through all the baggage involved, Eve agreed with me, and her attitude about the upcoming conversation shifted from impending doom to compassionate curiosity about where her parents were coming from.

  • I was stressed by work and complained to Eve about some things that I felt frustrated and stuck about. Instead of suggesting solutions, she kept asking for more details until she had more or less a complete snapshot of my mental state. At that point, she observed that every time I mentioned feeling sad, I sounded contemptuous and exasperated with myself. She hypothesized that I wasn’t giving myself permission to be sad. The “solution” to my problem ended up being to give me a big hug and let me cry on her shoulder for a bit, after which I immediately felt much less stressed.

In each case, the “helper” tried to learn about the “complainer’s” reality in as much detail as possible—not just the problem, but the whole person and whatever else was behind the immediate issue. And that’s what made it possible for them to actually help.

It often feels like I understand enough to be helpful without knowing all those details. But when I think that, I’m usually wrong: I end up giving bad advice, based on bad assumptions, and the person I’m talking to ends up having to do a bunch of work to argue with me and correct my bad assumptions. That makes the conversation feel disfluent and adversarial instead of collaborative.

It turns out this is a really common failure mode of helping-conversations, which is what I think generates the old saw at the beginning of this post, that “sometimes people don’t want help, just to be listened to.”

But I think that’s actually too nice to the helper, and uncharitable to the complainer (in that it assumes they weirdly don’t caring about solving their problem). What’s really going on is probably that your advice is bad, because you didn’t really listen, because you weren’t curious enough.

When I’m curious about what someone’s saying, I often do repeat things back to them in my own words. But it’s because I’m genuinely curious, not because I’m checking off the “reflect words” box in my “be a good listener” checklist. That means I do it in a way that sounds like my natural speech, instead of mimicking them like a chatbot.

When done this way, reflective listening feels validating rather than alienating. It’s a way of demonstrating that I care a lot about what someone has to say. Putting their idea into my own words shows them that I’ve fully digested it, and helps us establish a shared language in which to talk about it. That, in turn, makes the conversation fluent and collaborative, rather than a zigzag of bad assumptions and corrections.

So the right advice isn’t “listen harder and repeat everything back”—you won’t be genuine if you’re just imitating the surface appearance of a good listener. Instead, be humble and get curious! Remind yourself that there’s a ton of detail behind whatever you’re hearing, and try to internalize all of it that you can. Once you’ve done that, your advice will be more likely hit the mark, and you’ll be able to communicate it clearly.

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Recently, I realized why people keep giving this weird-seeming advice. Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.

The generator is curiosity.

I think that curiosity is a necessary, but not sufficient generator here.  It also requires a deeply internalized felt sense of how easy it is for humans to misunderstand each-other.

If you have a deep curiosity, but not that understanding, you'll tend to want to ask elaboration questions - Why, what, how?  You'll tend to miss the very basic step of checking to make sure the thing you heard was actually the thing said.

The "reflecting what they said back to them" doesn't just cargo cult the idea of letting people feel understood, but it importantly mimics the behavior of someone who doesn't know if they understood at all. It's not just a chance for validation of someone's feelings and beliefs, but also a chance to correct any misunderstandings of those feelings and beliefs.

I think this sense is what statements like:

Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do what you requested?

is trying to train. After 30 or so times of getting a response like "No! I'm feeling confused because I thought we already agreed to this 3 weeks ago,"  you start to get a visceral feel for how wrong your understanding can be.

This always used to seem silly to me. If I complain at my partner and she “just listens,” I’ve accomplished nothing except maybe made her empathetically sad. When I complain at people, I want results, not to grouse into the void!

I think this section really gets into how deep this misunderstanding can go.  It could be that you've 100% understood the content of what they said, but if you misunderstood the intent, you might give understanding when they wanted advice, or advice when they wanted understanding. You not only have to clarify WHAT they said, but why!

And it goes even deeper! I may understand the content of their problem, and I may even understand that their intent is to give advice, but I misunderstand the frame from which they're coming.  If they're coming from a frame of personal responsibility, but they're coming from a frame of systems and incentives, you could give advice that totally misses the mark even though it's great advice.

It often feels like I understand enough to be helpful without knowing all those details. But when I think that, I’m usually wrong: I end up giving bad advice, based on bad assumptions, and the person I’m talking to ends up having to do a bunch of work to argue with me and correct my bad assumptions. That makes the conversation feel disfluent and adversarial instead of collaborative.

So after rereading the second half of the post, it seems like I'm basically just repeating your post back to you in different words.

Which seems totally appropriate.

Does what I said match your understanding?

Yes, and I think the different words were useful!

You're repeating / elaborating on things that are in the post, but were not particularly emphasized. I didn't emphasize them because I've personally had the "deeply internalized felt sense of how easy it is for humans to misunderstand each-other" that you describe for a long time, and only more recently got the "be curious" part, and so I emphasized that because it was the missing piece for me (and didn't totally realize the degree to which the other part was load-bearing / could be the missing piece for others).

I totally agree.

This is also completely true when trying to talk to new people: being curious trumps all tricks and made-up sentences you can find. That was actually an epiphany for me, where I realized that my difficulty with starting conversation with new people stemmed from my lack of curiosity -- just like you wrote, I thought I had them figured out. Turns out I'm not that great at figuring out people I never spoke to.

This is me also. I fail to make small talk, or talk at all, because although I'm quite curious about a lot of things, I'm not really curious about people. I think that usually my problem is I don't want to snoop on people lives. Turn out, that people likes —in general— to be questioned about their lives and it's something specially useful when need to break the ice to meet new people.

Fascinating. A possible counterexample is that I have noticed in myself (and others) a tendency to sometimes be calmed down or reassured by even a mechanical repetition that is known to be mechanical by the recipient. This can happen in spite of consciously thinking "them saying that shouldn't work," and being annoyed at it, at the same time as feeling better because of it. In the instances where it has worked, I have found myself hearing back what I said and having an internal response like, "Yeah! You get me!" And my wife has done the same thing.

Granted, it doesn't happen every time; I think it's partly a question of what words are used. Indeed, on reflection I think it might have to do with parrot-phrasing rather than paraphrasing. At least the instances I remember of this working, were times where I used the same words as the other person, or vice versa.

This suggests to me that there exists some mechanism by which reflection is perceived as supportive, such that it can produce some effect even in the absence of curiosity.

I remember a time when someone suggested I'd try repeating people's exact words back to them more. At first I felt like I couldn't do it, because gah, obviously this cannot work, I'm just parroting their words back to them so why would they feel any better because of it, they're just going to think that I think they're dumb... 

Then I voiced some of those thoughts to the person who had suggested this, and after I did that they repeated some of my words back to me, in exact same form as I had said them.

And that felt validating and like they'd heard me.

And I was like "...huh."

And they were like "...see?"

(But it definitely doesn't work with everyone, some do just get annoyed.)

It occurs to me that the reason why this (sometimes) works might be that it's an unfakeable signal of you actually having paid attention to the other person. It's possible to seem like you are listening to someone, nodding along and being quiet except for a few encouraging words like "uh huh" and "yeah?" every now and then - while thinking about something else at the same time and missing out on a lot of the other person's actual words. But repeating someone's words back to them in the exact form they said them, proves that at that moment at least, you had to be actually listening.

This would also help explain why it seems so stupid if you see such an excerpt written out in text form. If the other person's words are written down, then you can just read them at any time, and copying them doesn't prove that you were paying attention at the exact moment when they were written.

While that might be part of it, I wonder if there's not something more If I'd venture a guess, I'd say that hearing one's words repeated by a dispassionate (but compassionate) third party's voice helps detach oneself from one's current emotions (by empathizing with the third party view?) and move forward.

Parrot-phrasing comes across as kind of manipulative in this description:

  • saves you the trouble of thinking of suitable paraphrases.
  • prevents the distracting and time-consuming disagreements (“That’s not quite what I meant”) which often arise over slight differences in wording.
  • conceals your lack of knowledge or understanding about a subject. It’s quite hard to make a fool of yourself it you only use the other person’s words!

This is exactly the opposite of curiosity, it's an attempt to gloss over your ignorance, which seems both lazy and mean to the person you're talking to.

This is exactly the opposite of curiosity, it's an attempt to gloss over your ignorance, which seems both lazy and mean to the person you're talking to.

Ironically, I see this as 100% the opposite. If you're paraphrasing, then that means you're basically guessing what the words mean, inserting your own ideas instead of holding open the possibility that you don't actually know what was said. It also means that you're not necessarily listening to what exact words somebody used. (A pet peeve of mine, TBH: people rounding off what I say to the nearest familiar thing, rather than listening with precision.)

So, demonstrating the ability to parrot-phrase is a much stronger signal to me that someone is paying close attention to what I actually said, and not just jumping to a round-off.

Parrot-phrasing comes across as kind of manipulative in this description

I don't see any problem with the first two points, as putting extra effort into something is not a measure of virtue.

For the third point, that's a bit out of context: that person's video describes how she used it as a new department head who didn't yet understand all the technical details of what they were doing, but needed to get to know her staff and their concerns. Parrot-phrasing allowed her to quickly become familiar with her staff, the terms and what things were important to said staff without needing to stop conversations to learn all the terms first. (From context, I gather that she looked up the terms afterward, instead of making the staff explain everything to her up front -- thereby allowing her to focus her learning on the things the staff thought most important.)

In context, that sounds like an unequivocal good for everyone involved.

From a computer programming perspective, I look at this as simply being able to use "forward references" -- i.e., the ability to use a term as a placeholder that has not yet been defined. In truth, until the terms are defined, you don't really know what somebody is using their words to mean anyway. But you can learn quite a lot about a situation or person without yet knowing their precise definitions of the words. And your value as a listener doesn't often require complete understanding, anyway.

For example, I often help people work through problems where I don't know an exact definition of every word they're using, and sometimes if the subject matter is uncomfortable to discuss, I will have them use code words whose entire purpose is to ensure I don't know part of what they're talking about!

Similarly, computer programming professionals know that "rubber ducking" doesn't require a deep understanding anyway, as otherwise one could not use a rubber duck to do it. The fact that people poured out their deepest secrets to good ol' ELIZA should be an indication of how valuable simply providing a mental loopback interface to someone can be... not to mention how often it is that just providing the loopback is more valuable to the recipient than any actual interjection from another brain.

To put it another way, when people want a listener, the listener's actual understanding is far less important than it appears. Even if the listener is a professional helper of some kind, their value is usually more in the area of guiding the speaker through a reflective process of some kind... in which the speaker's understanding of their own thoughts is the actually important part.

Very nice post! I would add that it is a useful and nontrivial skill to notice what you're paying attention to. It may not be helpful to try getting curious unless you know concretely what this means about how you move your eyes and attention.

To give a video game example, players new to a genre have no idea where to put their eyes on the screen. When I told a friend playing Hades to put their eyes on their own character, instead of on the enemies, they instantly started taking half as much damage. I got a lot better at Dark Souls, on the other hand, by staring at the enemies to catch their telegraphed movements and not on myself. Similarly, I had a friend who could not get into Path of Exile because they wanted to dive into playing the game mechanically and was frustrated about my claim that to properly enjoy the game you spend most of your energy staring at skill trees and item builds and wikis. I found that my natural state playing PoE was leaving my eyes half unfocused on the game, spamming my skill rotation while thinking about my next item or skill upgrade on my second monitor.

To listening properly and be curious, I think the main places one should focus one's attention (in addition to the words they're saying) are: (a) on the other person's face and body, (b) on the other person's tone of voice, and (c) on your own bodily sensations. In other words, everywhere but your own thoughts.

Great post!

I had some similar thoughts about how to listen to other people's problems here:

Start by trying to understand what problem the person is trying to solve. "I've been trying to sign up for dance lessons but can never seem to get around it." One possible approach would be to immediately start offering ways for the person to sign up for dance lessons. Often a more fruitful one would be to first ask - why do you want to attend dance lessons? Maybe it turns out that the person doesn't actually care about learning to dance, but is feeling bad because their friend, a great dancer, always gets all the attention at parties. Then the actual problem is not "how to learn to dance" but "how to get other people to notice me". It's quite possible that not knowing to dance isn't actually the biggest issue there.

Test your understanding of the problem. When you're formulating an understanding of the problem, it can be useful to frequently verbalize it to the other person to make sure that you've understood correctly. "So you seem to be feeling bad because your partner just became the President of your country while you mostly spend time playing video games, is that right?"

A rule of thumb that I sometimes use is "do I feel like I understand this problem and its causes well enough that I could explain to a third person why this person wants to solve it and why they haven't been able to solve it yet?" If the answer is no, hold off proposing solutions and try asking more questions first.

Even "obvious" problems may benefit from questions. Someone once mentioned that they tend to often jump to being critical of others, which tends to be harmful. Here the causal mechanism seemed to be pretty obvious, but asking "how does it tend to be harmful" was still useful in bringing out details of the exact nature of the typical criticism and how people tended to react to that.

why they haven't been able to solve it yet?

the magic part.

Bad / insufficiently curiosed-through advice is often infuriating because the person giving it seems to be assuming you're an idiot / have come to them as soon as you noticed the problem. Which is very rarely true! Generally, between spotting the problem and talking to another person about it, there's a pretty fucking long solution-seeking stage. Where "pretty fucking long" can be anything between ten minutes ("i lost my pencil and can't find it )=") (where actually common sense suggestions MIGHT be helpful - you might not have through up all the checklist yet) and THE PERSON'S ENTIRE LIFETIME (anything relating to a disability, for example).

An advice-giver who doesn't understand why you still have the problem is going to have a lot more advice to give, and they're also often going to be SO patronizing and idiocy-assuming and invalidating sounding.

As opposed to the person who is at the point of "ok yeah that does sound like a problem" first, before they might move on with "hmm but what to do though" along with you.

(You might well be ahead of them anyway, but at least they've listened first!)

I agree with your main idea about how curiosity is related to listening well.

The post’s first sentence implies that the thesis will be a refutation of a different claim:

A common piece of interacting-with-people advice goes: “often when people complain, they don’t want help, they just want you to listen!”

The claim still seems pretty true from my experience: that sometimes people have a sufficient handle on their problem, and don’t want help dealing with the problem better, but do want some empathy, appreciation, or other benefits from communicating their problem in the form of a complaint.

Also, your empathy reassures them that you will be ready with truly helpful help if they do later want it.

I've spent a few years volunteering at an online emotional support site, and the difference between good listeners and the rest was exactly that, a genuine interest in the other person. Reflecting, empathizing, asking questions comes naturally when you want to understand what the other person is going through and where they are coming from. It is only rarely that you can suggest something they didn't already know, but you can certainly help them clear up their own thoughts and feelings and be able to figure things out for themselves. If you just go through the motions of active listening, you come across as robotic and insincere. Then again, some people don't care about curiosity or interest, just the act of someone listening, repeating, recapping and paraphrasing is good enough.

Mirrors are useful even though you don't expect to see another person in them.

Sometimes you need a person to be a mirror to your thoughts.

I remember when I first visited 7cups, my listener acted so much like a parody of ELIZA that I accused them of being a chatbot. I actually can't stand those emotional support websites because most of the people on them clearly have no interest in the person they're talking to - I get more benefit out of Omegle, oddly enough. So yeah, that's a very good point.

Yeah, a lot of those listeners were quite mechanical. It takes quite a few tries, or some luck, to find someone who is genuinely interested and engaging, but still avoids giving unwanted advice. Not sure how the situation is there now, the owner is apparently a sleaze. 

For anyone like me: it's easy to read this advice as "if you're not curious, you're therefore bad/doing something bad", which might suggest attempting to brute force an emotional state of curiosity. I think that's probably emotionally harmful.

It can be the case that:

  • Curiosity is very useful for being a good listener
  • You are not curious about (this person) in (this situation)

From there, you could:

  • Hide your current lack of curiosity and go through the motions as best you can. I think this is the best option quite often!
  • Tell them your honest feelings. Maybe you're not very interested at the moment but are worried about them feeling not cared about, and you can tell them that. Might be a bad idea if they're vulnerable or not trustworthy.
  • Investigate why you are not curious (either internally or with the other person), which might spark curiosity or suggest how else you should move the conversation.
  • (any other option)

I think it's healthier to grow curiosity as a natural extension of your desires instead of shoving it in as "ah, now I have to take the curiosity action to perform this task". I don't think the author was suggesting the latter, I just noticed my inclination to read it that way.

I think the advice in this post is true and valuable with regards to the importance of developing a deep understanding of the complainer. I do also think (based on my own experience as both complainer and listener) that sometimes people want empathy or a sounding board rather than advice. That doesn't mean they literally don't care about ever solving their problem, but rather that first they need emotional support (in cases where they're wanting empathy) or space to think out loud rather than prescriptive advice.

Yup, I came here to say this.

These days I'm often talking with Duncan Sabien, and sometimes I complain about my problems.

When I do, I almost never expect Duncan to give me solutions (though he sometimes does, because he's a smart person and a good listener). I mostly do it to vent, and to put some words on ideas and grievances I've been stewing on for a while.

I'm going to be a little elitist and say this: the smarter people are, the less you can help them by giving them advice. If people aren't self-actualized, and don't have the skill to think through their problems, then, sure, you can listen to them for a while and give them a totally different approach or a new trick that they didn't think of. But there's also a category of people who, by the time they come to you to vent about their problems, have already put enough thought into them that they'll have considered anything you can think of after a 5-minutes conversation.

(though of course you might have domain-specific knowledge or they might have overlooked something obvious or they might need support to not pick the easy-but-wrong choice, etc)

To paraphrase Scott Alexander, we should cultivate the skill of appreciating the phatic. Obviously everything in the article is valid and insightful and being curious is absolutely a skill to cultivate, especially in rational communities. But being phatic is a good default.

Advice for absolute beginners: when in doubt, just shut up. Look at the person you want to help, nod a little, and shut your piehole. Unless you come from an Asian culture, you probably blather too much anyway. The cost of not saying anything helpful will probably be outweighed by the benefit of not saying something harmful.

About an hour ago I was thinking about how I need to work on my internal curiosity drive when it comes to other people, especially my roommate, since a lot of our conversations do end up feeling "disfluent and adversarial," as you said. I think part of this definite can be chalked up to my (unfair) assumption that they don't care about solving their problems, since I have a much lower level of comfort tolerance than they do, and a much stronger problem solving sense (and admittedly, fewer health issues in my way). 

This post is an excellent place for me to get started!

Great post! I really strongly agree with this advice, and I think it's one of the most important ways my communication skills have improved over time.

I especially really liked your point about cargo cult science - that active listening often seems trite because people are just repeating thing, without the underlying mental effort. That felt like it helped clarify some disagreements I'd had with people about this approach before, I think I took the underlying mental effort as implicit, and they didn't.

My current favourite way of explaining it, is that the default state of the world is that you've misunderstood, because good communication is hard. You should reflect things back, ask "was that a correct summary?", have the other person point out what's wrong, try again, and keep iterating until they're happy

Of the posts in the "personal advice" genre from 2020, this is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

The central lesson is that there is a core generator of good listening,, and if you can tap into your curiosity about the other person's perspective, this both automatically makes you take actions that come off as good listening, and also improves the value of what you do eventually say.

Since reading it, I can supply anecdotal evidence that it's good advice for people like me. Not only do you naturally sound like one of those highly empathetic people who (if you're me) you at earlier stages of life regarded as somewhere close to space aliens. But you're also often wrong, you're wrong so much, and keeping this post in mind will help you find out how.

Promoted to curated: I really liked this post, it was practical, concrete and I think also surprisingly important. I also think I myself benefit particularly much from it, since I think I often struggle with a bunch of the stuff this post addresses. 

(Curation delayed for a few hours while I am figuring out some bugs with our email server. Maybe related to the recent Gmail outage a few days ago.)

Fantastic post. the mechanical repetition is a good first step for practicing listing, but sometimes people have a hard time going beyond that, and sometimes instructors/books don't do a good enough job of conveying the attitude you need to cultivate in order to do this effectively and non mechanically (personally i think NVC does a great job at that).

Though I do think there are times when people simply want someone to listen to them without offering solutions, and not because they don't want to solve the problem. some examples:

  1. i just want to share with someone what's going on with me, but I'm not interested in solutions to my situation from them.
  2. I'm having a hard time with something, but not because i lack a solution, and i just need some support/listening
  3. I'm feeling down for some reason and decide that talking with someone would help, since that is what on my mind, i talk about the reason i am down, but any solution offered would be the wrong one since i already decided talking to someone is the best solution.

I also had personal experiences where someone came to me with something that troubled them, and i wasn't sure if they were looking for me to just listen or to offer solutions, so i simply asked them and they said they wanted me to just listen (i can say with fairly high confidence this person wasn't familiar with these sorts of approaches, so they wouldn't think "oh, that's what I'm supposed to want")

P.S: the chat excerpt at the start was hilarious :D 

Your article really stuck with me over the past week, thank you for writing this. When listening to friends I had a felt sense of wanting to thoroughly understand how they model the issue they are facing.

The "cargo cult" aspect of repeating back information reminds me of advice I used to read in "how to date" books back when I was on the dating market (and didn't really know the first thing about dating.). Those books often talked about "mirroring" behavior. Supposedly, when two people are into each other, they (sometimes? most of the time?) start to mirror each other's behavior. The books' advice tended to be: if you're into someone, you should start mirroring her behavior (I say "her" because the books I read were generally geared to straight men). On the other hand, maybe "mirroring" is a dynamic that develops from mutual attraction.

Mirroring is actually a normal side-effect of empathic connection, in an interaction that's going well. When I was a teenager doing telephone technical support, I one day noticed that I was unconsciously changing my speech accent, pacing, and vocabulary to resemble that of the people I spoke with (who were from many different parts of the country). This happens to me all the time when I get involved in an interaction with someone, but doesn't have anything to do with attraction as such. I mean, if somebody was a jerk, then I certainly didn't find myself mirroring in this fashion, but if the interaction was at all positive, then it tended to happen.

I have seen lots of stuff talking about trying to deliberately generate rapport via mirroring, but in my experience any literal and direct mirroring has always been something that was the effect of the rapport, rather than being a way of causing it.

In my experience, if one must mirror deliberately, it's much better to simply mirror pacing and rhythm, not specific actions. For example, in BDSM, timing one's whip strokes or other actions based on your partner's breathing or writhing is a much better use of mirroring than just directly copying their movements or breathing. (If you think of an interaction between two people as being a series of disturbances in a medium sending out waves towards each other, it becomes easy to see why interaction on unsynchronized wavelengths creates a disruptive experience, but synchronized ones build in intensity as both parties' responses are cresting or peaking together.)

Outside of such specialized uses of mirroring, though, it's more useful as a tool to do two things:

  1. Observing someone well enough to follow their rhythm keeps you out of your own head
  2. Noticing how your own rhythm is or isn't naturally following theirs helps you notice in real time how well the interaction is actually going.

Copying their every motion doesn't really improve on these things, at least in my opinion. In truth, copying gross movements might distract you from more useful information -- like breathing and postural tension -- that give you more detailed information about a person's emotional state.

So, if for example a topic becomes uncomfortable for them, you can notice this without them needing to say anything, and then either change the subject or step back and express openness to hearing their position, e.g. "sorry, does that subject bother you?"

Conversely, if someone becomes energized or engaged when talking about something, or in response to something you say, then that's also excellent information.

(A surprising amount of social competence boils down to valuing sensory and nonverbal information channels equally or higher than verbal/intellectual ones.)

On the other hand, maybe "mirroring" is a dynamic that develops from mutual attraction.

The term mirroring comes from NLP and is a sign of rapport that was observed to happen in therapeutic interactions. Decades later psychologists discovered the same dynamic and called it psychological mimicry.

A lot of the pickup people used to read a lot of NLP and tried to apply it.

The books' advice tended to be: if you're into someone, you should start mirroring her behavior 

You are likely cargo-culting the books if that's what you take away. Most of that literature does discuss issues around pacing and leading.

It's still questionable whether that's a good idea for dating but it's more complex then just "mirror the other person".

Minor note: The footnotes in this essay are somewhat messed up. Note that LW properly supports footnotes nowadays.

It reminds me of how rich dialogue choices always constitute a part of great RPGs. You cannot pretend to have done good work on a role-playing game if dialogue options boil down to "Tell me more", "Yes", and "Not now".

Thanks, that's a very valuable insight for me!

[WARNING: The paragraphs below are evolutionary psychological speculation so read them with a grain of salt.]

When you present it this way, it makes much more sense why we are "wired" to (in some circumstances) expect the other person not to offer any help or advice but just pay attention and listen. Something important happened. So important, actually, that I want (or maybe "I'm adapted") to tell another person about it and I want them to understand as precisely as possible both the content (what I'm saying) and the intention (why I want them to know about that).

Only once we minimized the inferential distance between us and each of us can assume that the other has all the relevant knowledge, we can start thinking "OK, so what do we do now?"

Another (maybe more obvious) explanation of this phenomenon is that we just want to reassure ourselves that we are not alone with our problems and/or try strengthening our relationships in times when we may especially need them. This however leaves out many situations when we want to "just talk" while nothing we value is in any particular danger–these can be explained by your interpretation.

And... yes, this sounds a lot of like Hold Off On Proposing Solutions. Maybe we already discovered it at some point in our evolutionary past.