This year our world has experienced an unprecedented pandemic that drastically changed life for millions of people. Adjusting to a new normal has tested many relationships, most notably over the past eight months. The first article in this series highlighted these experiences in hopes that we might all learn how to manage our relational stress better, together. My first blog post focused on spillover and crossover stress, and how these types of stress play out in relationships. When relationships are strained from many exterior variables, our connections with each other suffer. We struggle to stay relational. In order for people to stay connected in relationships, they must learn the skill of attunement, which is the focus of today’s blog post.
What is attunement?
Attunement is the process by which humans form relationships (1). It has to do with how we respond to another person (versus react), and it is an important part of “feeling felt” in close relationships (1). Dr. Dan Siegel (1) says, “When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. Attunement allows us to reach a mutual mind with other people and synchronize with them. It’s a form of interpersonal and emotional connection that allows us to see and hear people and join in their emotional experience.
How do we mis-attune?
When attunement is missing in a relationship, it is called mis-attunement. Mis-attunement is when two people are in the same conversation, but appear to be misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other. One person might say something like, “You don’t listen to me” and the other may respond with, “Yes, I do. You said…” The second person may be able to repeat what the first person said but still be unable to join in with how the other person is feeling. Because communication is much more than words, it leaves the first individual feeling unknown.
We mis-attune when we hear someone express frustration about a topic, and we immediately try to solve her problem. We also mis-attune when we downplay others’ concerns, even if we don’t share those concerns. For example: to respond to a friend struggling with financial anxiety by saying, “at least you have savings to pay your bills,” we are not joining with him emotionally. When we use words like “at least” or “look on the brighter side,” we invalidate how that person is feeling. We communicate that she does not have the right to be sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, and so forth. This is a common mistake that I see in counseling couples and families. It is an attempt to offer a mechanism to someone we care about for seeing the bigger picture; almost like a reality check. Yet, it so rarely has the soothing effect we hope, but rather, it amplifies shame or evokes bitterness.
Mis-attunement is like having a gastric-bypass in a relationship. In a gastric-bypass, the nutrients that are ingested are rerouted so that the body is starved of the extra calories, leading to weight loss. In the same way, mis-attunement bypasses the emotional connection people need to feel safe and secure, and it starves them of human connection.
How do we attune to others?
We attune to another person by setting aside our own assumptions and perspectives, then focusing on the emotional content of what is being shared. Doing so allows us to respond in a validating way. When we attune, we intentionally try to understand how the person feels as if we saw it through his eyes. In order to become a master at attunement, it takes a lot of practice. Marriage experts John and Julie Gottman offer helpful guidelines for attuning that individuals can practice with their loved ones; I think these are excellent ways to improve attunement:
- Ask questions. Really listen to the answers.
- Follow up on the answers you get.
- Ask open-ended questions (i.e., questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no). These open the heart.
- Avoid judgment.
- Avoid giving advice until you fully understand or it has been asked for. Make exploratory statements that help you understand, like, “Tell me the story of that.”
- Communicate respect.
- Communicate understanding and empathy.
- Breathe. Breathe again. Self-soothe.
- Be critical.
- Be judgmental.
- Be defensive.
- Engage in put downs or superiority. (2)
My challenge to readers is to inventory how often they use these skills, where the gaps exist, and how they might try to improve one of these new skills at a time. The process begins with noticing opportunities for improvement, then trying new skills with deliberateness. Attempts will feel awkward; that is normal! It will be important to offer yourself grace in the process. If you start taking small steps to improve your relational connections during this stressful season, it may make the rest of 2020 a little easier for humankind as a whole as well as positioning all of us for a better 2021.
1. Siegel, D. (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.
2. Gottman, J & Gottman, J. (2017). How to be a Great Listener: Learn the Art of Listening to Create Intimate Conversation, Trust, and Love. Workbook for therapists, purchased from www.gottmaninstitute.com.