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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Parroting and Similar Techniques

Polly wants a cracker

When I was young, I remember an ongoing joke in which a parrot states, “Polly wants a cracker.” The joke didn’t have a premise, only a punchline.

When a kid droned on in front of the class about a book report, some child would repeatedly rehearse the bit about Polly the parrot wanting a cracker. “Polly wants a cracker.”

If a kid on the playground bragged about how great the weekend was, though others heard similar reports before, the Polly joke would reappear. “Polly wants a cracker.”

An educator reminded students about an upcoming exam? You guessed it; Polly’s desire for a cracker was introduced into the classroom. “Polly wants a cracker.”

For added comedic effect, a jokester could mimic how a parrot may sound while adding an obligatory “rrrrwaaaakk” sound. As an example, you’ve read Polly’s statement over and over so far. “Rrrrwaaaakk, Polly wants a cracker.”

Admittedly, humor associated with the parrot joke was a unique form of trolling—using unsolicited comments to provoke an emotional reaction from an unsuspecting party. By its very design, it was meant to annoy people.

Though you may not be familiar with the Polly joke, I imagine you’ve heard children mockingly repeating one another in attempt to agitate other kids. Child X says, “I’m gonna’ tell mom,” as child Y sarcastically parrots, “I’m gonna’ tell mom!”

What is it about mimicry that people consider irritating? Through my practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I consider imitation events under the framework of the ABC Model.

Whereas an Action transpires (event, occurrence, etc.), we Believe something (think, trust, regard as true, etc.), and this belief then results in a Consequence (emotion, bodily sensation, behavior, etc.). Often, our self-disturbing beliefs come in the form of should, must, or ought-type narratives.

Action – Person X repeatedly says, “Rrrrwaaaakk, Polly wants a cracker,” when person Y is saying something.

Belief – Person Y believes, “This shouldn’t happen, because I must not be disrespected, so I ought to teach her not to disrespect me!”

Consequence – Due to person Y’s demanding belief; he experiences anger, becomes sick to his stomach, and uses a lewd hand gesture towards person X.

In this scenario, it wasn’t person X’s behavior that caused the consequence. Rather, it was what person Y told himself about her behavior that resulted in an unpleasant outcome.

Parroting and other therapeutic techniques

Long after learning the Polly joke, I attended graduate school for a master’s degree in counseling (2009-2011) and then for a master’s degree in social work (2012-2014). During both programs, I learned of parroting, paraphrasing, reflecting, and summarizing.

Per one source, in regards to parroting, “The therapist loosely repeats what the client has just said. The twin goals of this technique are ensuring that the therapist heard what was said correctly, and encouraging the client to further clarify his or her thoughts.”

In one counseling class, this technique was demonstrated and I thought about the Polly joke. It was difficult to imagine how clients may find it useful for me to simply mimic them.

Client: So, I had a really rough week.

Me: You had a really rough week?

Client: Yeah, my dog ran off with my wife.

Me: Oh my, your dog…ran off with your wife!?

Client: Yeah, his name was Boomerang.

Me: Boomerang?

Client: Mhmm, I didn’t see that coming!

Me: *long pause* Didn’t see that coming.

Personally, I’m not a fan of parroting. I first learned of this conversational approach when undergoing training for military police interviews and interrogations. It seems a bit inauthentic to me and I prefer not to overuse it.

According to a separate source, “Paraphrasing occurs when the counselor states what the client has just said, using fewer words but without changing the meaning of what the client said. When utilizing this skill, you attempt to feed back the essence of what the person has just said.”

Similar to parroting, paraphrasing was taught in my counseling and social work programs. I was taught that this may be a helpful tool for a client who is a bit more longwinded than that which was used in the parroting example.

Client: So, I had a really rough week. My dog, Boomerang, ran off with my wife. I didn’t see that coming! I mean, he was being playful and all, and I don’t think he meant any harm. But he’s a big fella and she wasn’t paying attention when walking him. Apparently, they were walking down a steep hill. Well, anyway, he sees a rabbit and jerks the leash. My wife, Debbie, lost her grip on the leash, fell over, and somehow her foot got caught in the loop of the leash that she was holding. Well, you won’t believe this! That loop cinched around her tightly as Boomerang ran down the hill! My dog literally ran off with my wife! It’d be funny; if not for the fact that now she’s in the hospital, in a coma. The doctor said she hit her head on a rock, sustained a couple broken ribs, and being drug downhill did a number on a few of her teeth. I’m so distraught!

Me: I’m so sorry to hear that! So, Boomerang went after a rabbit while out on a walk with Debbie, he saw and gave chase towards the rabbit, ultimately dragging your wife downhill, and now she’s in the hospital with pretty significant injuries?

I appreciate the method of paraphrasing, especially when speaking with a person who becomes more emotionally activated when speaking. Condensing the overall meaning of an individual’s presenting information also allows for minor points of correction, if in the event I misheard or misunderstood something.

Another source states of reflecting, “A reflective listener tries to respond to feelings, not just to content. Feelings emerge in the emotional tone that the speaker expresses, such as anger, disappointment, discouragement, fear, joy, elation, or surprise. Content refers to ideas, reasons, theories, assumptions, and descriptions - to the substance of the speaker’s message.”

Comparable to paraphrasing, reflection is a means of connecting with a person and not simply mimicking or summarizing what was heard. This was a skill strongly advocated in both my counseling and social work programs.

Client: With Debbie in the hospital, I’m now taking care of our 18-month-old and three-year-old while working fulltime. It’s so damn stressful! I don’t know how she was able to do everything she did. You know, she worked from home and raised our kids. My boss was gracious enough to allow me to work from home, for now. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. But let me tell you, my wife was some kind of superhero for having the patience to deal with all the crying and yelling. My nerves are so shot that now I find myself getting angry when the phone rings, much less when dealing with everything else. And you know what, truth be told, I just really miss Debbie. I’m so terrified about this coma! She’s all alone and I…I just…I can’t stand this!

Me: You certainly have a difficult situation on your hand, no doubt about it. Who wouldn’t be afraid when faced with the unknown, as it relates to a coma? Add to that, the anger and stress you mention seem to be impactful enough as it is. As well, it sounds like you’re experiencing some sorrow.

Using reflection, I’m joining with my client. While I don’t marry myself to the misery a person experiences, reflecting affords an opportunity to demonstrate that my client isn’t alone and that—unlike the faux empathy an artificial intelligence therapist may display—I can use rational compassion when working with people.

Per a different source, in reference to summarizing, “Summaries are brief statements of longer excerpts from the counselling session. In summarising, the counsellor attends to verbal and non-verbal comments from the client over a period of time, and then pulls together key parts of the extended communication, restating them for the client as accurately as possible.”

At this point, you may think, “Wait, wait, wait! How is summarizing different than anything else addressed in this post?” I admit each of these approaches can be a bit tricky to separate.

When undergoing education for counseling and social work, I learned that summaries can occur within a session, after several sessions, or at the end of many sessions and when a client is ready to terminate the therapeutic relationship—graduating from the counseling process.

Client: It’s all just so hard right now!

Me: You know, when you initially mentioned Boomerang running off with your wife, I had no idea where you were headed with this session. Now that I better understand the significance of Debbie’s injuries and how difficult it’s been for you to look after your children while continuing to work and deal with the fact that you’re terrified, stressed, angry, and sad, I think I’m in the direction you’re facing. Let’s see what we can do to address some of that emotional stuff that’s welling up in association with your belief about this situation. What do you say?

Using summary, I gathered the relevant content necessary to form an ABC Model scenario.

Action – Debbie was walking Boomerang when the dog unexpectedly chased after a rabbit, dragging Debbie downhill and resulting in knocked-out teeth, broken ribs, and head trauma. She currently remains in a coma. The client is now responsible to 1) function as the sole caregiver of the children, 2) work from home when not used to doing so, and 3) tend to other matters within the home.

In REBT, I want to gather information pertaining to the meaningful and specific aspect of an Action that the client determines to be most relevant to the Consequence, as this is known as the “critical A.” I don’t want to presume anything, so I ask. Suppose the client tells me the critical A is:

Critical A – “My wife is hurt, I don’t know when she’ll be better, and I have no idea how to raise our kids as effectively as Debbie does.”

Using the client’s provided information; I now focus on the Belief that causes the Consequence.

Belief – My client believes about the critical A, “Life shouldn’t be so hard and because it is, I can’t stand this situation!”

My client’s Belief serves as a command, of sorts. He’s convinced himself that because life isn’t going as he believes it should, my client literally cannot tolerate his circumstances (Consequence).

Consequence – Fear, stress, anger, and sorrow.

The inflexible command towards life and a questionable instruction of not being able to handle his situation, my client now experiences the impact of his unhelpful Belief. It is at this point in the session that I would use disputing, unconditional acceptance, work on low frustration tolerance, and help my client to get better rather than to simply feel better.


Though I participated in the mockery of other children by using the “Polly wants a cracker” joke as a child, and despite not appreciating an entire session in which a therapist mimics a client, I find utility in some techniques which use repetition as a means to better understand people.

Aside from parroting, I was taught paraphrasing, reflecting, and summarizing when in graduate school. Addressed herein, and adding an REBT component to the mock therapy session, I hope to have effectively demonstrated how parroting and similar techniques work.

What do you think about these therapeutic skills? Would you appreciate a therapist who, rrrrwaaaakk, repeats everything you say? If not, you’ve found an REBT psychotherapist who takes a directive approach to helping you get better rather than wasting your precious time through mimicry.

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

Photo credit, photo by Bill Swartwout, fair use


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