Dialogues and mirroring – Psychodrama and Imago

In an earlier post I tried to capture a thought I had about dialogues. I was pleased to know someone read it and emailed me to say they were a bit confused. No wonder, I just pour out something I think about late at night — when I should be fast asleep!

I will describe more clearly how I work with couples by unpacking what I think are important ideas in a snippet from the earlier post.

I like to distinguish the words of the initiator of the dialogue, the protagonist, from the response by the person who is listening, the receiver, who I encourage to think of themselves as an auxiliary.

The problem is that I’m using language from two psychotherapeutic modalities. I imagine this makes no sense to anyone really, as there are very few psychodramatists who are also Imago Relationship Therapists. Even to someone who has that background it is still a muddled sentence.

Let me start again. First I’ll use Imago terms and then I’ll describe the same work using psychodrama language.

An Imago dialogue is not symmetrical. It has an initiator who makes a request, and someone who agrees to the request. This asymmetry might not be obvious as each person gets the same turns in the dialogue, as sender and receiver. But note, the initiator brings the topic, the other person has the last “send”.

There is a further asymmetry that is possible. After the first send the receiver mirrors a summary, validates and empathises. Then they become the responder. How to coach people to enhance the quality of that response is what I was thinking about. This is the moment when many people ask: “How do I respond? Can I say anything I like?”

What is the best way to answer that question?

There is a difference between the “responder” just downloading thoughts and feelings that have built up while listening, and assisting the other person to learn the impact of what they said on the receiver. It is easy to “correct” facts, to present alternative points of view, but not so useful, it can become discussion, debate or worse, dispute. To let the other person know what the impact was, in such a way that it is easy to hear, and helpful to them is quite an art.

These are the lead lines I have learned for this mostly from imago practitioners:

  • What touches me …
  • I’m glad you told me …
  • One thing I notice …
  • What we share …
  • What comes up for me …
  • Where we differ …

The sequence begins by honouring the initiator of the dialogue, and has some scope for the speaker to bring in their own frustrations and tensions around the topic. It is not just in the lead lines. I aim to educate the speaker to understand the purpose of the response, for the initiator of the dialogue to learn about themselves in the relationship. When both paries have this as their aim and attitude it creates more opportunity for the initiator to develop new understanding and possibly behaviours.

For the last “send” for each of the partners I suggest the following lead lines:

  • Thanks
  • I appreciate the way you paused to listen
  • I appreciate learning more about you growing up in your family
  • I feel closer to you
  • What this reminds me of in my own journey… 
  • One thing I might do differently…


Now to bring in the psychodrama experience. I use a dialogue approach based on Imago, but as a psychodramatist I bring some more concepts and approaches. In psychodrama there is an initial consciousness of warm up. What will serve the relationship in this session? After some discussion with this question in mind one person will bring their concern to the fore and request a dialogue.

This person is the protagonist for the session, and the other is the auxiliary. These terms are deeply embedding the psychodrama experience, and so it is easy for me to distinguish the two. While the protagonist presents their story to their partner, from their own perspective, speaking from their own experience, as a result of a good warm up this will be seen by both as a contribution to the relationship.

The protagonist leads, and the auxiliary can be there as a double, mirror and as someone to role-reverse with the protagonist. In psychodrama the auxiliary is able to build and extend the expression of the protagonist, using their own insight and hunches, with the aid of the therapist they remain faithful to the protagonists story and they do not override it with their own.

The term mirror is used in psychodrama as well as in Imago. The term is used more broadly in psychodrama as there are at least two types of mirroring – to quote from an earlier post:

It was useful to come across Peter Felix Kellermann’s description of two types of mirroring.

Validating Mirror

“When I look, I am seen so I exist.” – Winnicott

Evaluative Mirror

Learning to see how others see you

Kellermann, Peter Felix. 2007, “Lets Face it, Mirroring in Psychodrama” in Psychodrama Advances in Theory and Practice. Baim, Burmeister and Maciel, Routlidge

The first, validating mirroring corresponds well with the mirroring in Imago, and also with the validation stage.

The second type of mirroring is the one psychodramatists know well, audience members become auxiliaries and replay what they saw in the story, revealing aspects that the protagonist may not have been aware of.

The main point in this post is to suggest that the response phase of a dialogue is enhanced when viewed as a type of mirroring with the purpose of assisting the protagonist to learn how they are seen by others, in this case their partner.

It is all quite simple when it flows as a dialogue, but it sounds complex as the evaluative mirroring is in turn mirrored in an empathic way by the other partner.


I am convinced that this subtle but important difference in approaching the “response” leads to more spontaneous role development for the protagonist – or behaviour change on the part of the sender as an Imagoist would describe it. This approach to the response reduces the need for the Imago behaviour change dialogues.

Perhaps now this snippet from the earlier post, where I freely mix modalities, makes more sense:

In responding as an auxiliary, we are not asking for anything. Of course the sender (or protagonist) might listen and mirror the response, but as a responder it is useful to keep the mind-set of an auxiliary, then the response is a form of mirroring in that the protagonist can see how they impact on the other person.

4 Replies to “Dialogues and mirroring – Psychodrama and Imago”

  1. Is there not a sense in which the Imago therapist (coach) in an imago dialogue session is the auxiliary. I see the definition of auxiliary to be someone who provides ‘supplementary or additional help or support’. Is it not too much to ask the responder to be both a responder and auxiliary?

  2. Yes, there is that sense. As I’m exploring this work I’m thinking there are different ways of “languaging” — or domains of discourse. In psychodrama language the coach might be considered the producer or director of the drama. But even in psychodrama the director can take on auxiliary roles. Offering lead lines (in imago language) is a form of doubling (in psychodrama language), and that is an auxiliary task.

    In psychodrama auxiliary is a bit more complex too as it is short for auxiliary ego. Imago uses the word containment, and that idea is amplified too by the double description, if we think of simply becoming the other person, crossing the bridge, leaving your own ego behind and being there as an auxiliary ego for the other.

  3. Imago doesn’t refer to ‘the ego’ often. I guess that when it asks the receiver ‘to park their stuff in the parking lot’ for the duration of the dialogue, that’s leaving the ego behind?

  4. Brian, back to your reflection: Is it not too much to ask the responder to be both a responder and auxiliary?

    It is much to ask. Even doing a dialogue is much to ask. For many people it is too much to ask, and so I don’t think we should encourage them to do what they are not ready for.

    Many people can intellectually learn to follow a dialogue form, but they remain adversarial. Not a good thing.

    Thinking about the response the way I do above — to assist the sender — enables the therapist to assist the responder to be collaborative, to further the connectedness in the relationship.

    I’m revising my thought on this since the Dan Wile workshop.

    He identifies three cycles:

    • Adversarial

    • Withdrawn

    and the one we aim to move to in a dialogue:

    • Collaborative

    Perhaps the best way to use psychodramatic language here then is to think of the sender and the responder as each being both protagonists and auxiliaries.

    The task is to speak ones own truth in such a way that the other can hear it and is enlivened and informed by it, motivated to stay connected. Keep the other partner in mind, even the first sender can be reflective, validating and empathic.

    You go on to say: But even in psychodrama the director can take on auxiliary roles. Offering lead lines (in imago language) is a form of doubling (in psychodrama language), and that is an auxiliary task.

    Yes. We model what we are hoping the couple will learn from us. Having a clear idea of what a collaborative dialogue looks like we can coach this by assisting each partner with lead lines and doubling. This involves being an auxiliary ego.

    You continue: Imago doesn’t refer to ‘the ego’ often. I guess that when it asks the receiver ‘to park their stuff in the parking lot’ for the duration of the dialogue, that’s leaving the ego behind?

    The word ego is just too loaded with various meanings, but auxiliary ego is meaningful to me from experience on the psychodrama stage. One minute I’m there as just me, then every conflict and struggle I have in that moment is enacted by others from the group. Each one speaks as if they are me, a whole being, each one has a world view, a way of speaking. They are all me.

    When I double one of the partners in couple therapy I step into their shoes and voice a truth they can’t yet voice. I ask them to correct me if I’m wrong, or to state in their words what was right about what I said. I have become them for a moment.

    In that moment I have a sense I’m fully them. I’m an auxiliay ego, to use Moreno’s words. Having left my ego behind is maybe just my language but it fits.

    Offering lead lines is a different technique, but it is informed by being in their shoes, bringing forth what will make the relationship more collaborative.

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