What is attunement and why is it important?
Edward Brodkin and Ashley Pallathra, the authors of Missing Each Other explain the key skill of attunement and why is vital for establishing and maintaining better connections with others.
We are wired for human connection. Our drive to connect with others is evident from the earliest moments of our lives. Infants recognise and demonstrate a preference for human faces, suggesting that we have an innate interest and curiosity about others. As infants continue to develop in a safe, nurturing environment, they develop the ability to form emotional and physical attachment bonds to their parent or caregiver, something that provides them with the sense of security necessary to explore, take chances and develop their own sense of self. Over time, as children begin to acquire language, they quickly learn the monumental value of connecting their minds with others through verbal and nonverbal communication.
Kids learn, over time, to engage in complex interactions that allow for the exchange of ideas or experiences. We have an intrinsic interest in and capability of learning about someone else’s experience and an interest in determining how their experience may connect to ours. There are, without a doubt, individual differences in how much motivation we have to engage with others, or in how interesting and pleasurable social interactions are to us. Rarely do we want to be connected to someone all the time. But overall, whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, you are generally compelled to generate some degree of a physical, emotional and/or intellectual connection to those around you.
We know that humans have an inherent need for social bonds and we also know what happens when we’re deprived of them, especially early in life. Early deprivation of social contact (e.g., being embraced, rocked, hugged) has been linked to alterations in brain development and consequent disruption of a child’s ability to develop positive attachments to others. Over time, this early lack of social engagement with caretakers can lead to trouble regulating emotions, low self-esteem, behavioural issues and impaired cognitive development. Social isolation is costly to our wellbeing in adulthood as well, and it has negative effects on overall health and longevity that are comparable to the negative effects of other well established risk factors, such as obesity. Having a low number of social bonds is also associated with declines in physical and mental health outcomes. The poorer health you have, the less likely you are to socially engage with others, perpetuating the cycle.
Evolutionary psychologists tell us that there were adaptive reasons for humans’ tendency to connect with each other, that social cooperation was driven by our need to survive and reproduce. We need others in order to gain information and resources, to protect ourselves and our offspring from danger and to find help in solving problems. So you might think that we need connection purely for utilitarian reasons, such as survival and reproduction. But selfless acts of kindness for strangers provide examples of how social connection is not necessarily motivated by kinship and functionality.
From childhood, we learn to identify shared goals with others and make connections based on our similarities. As we get older, we grow the capacity to accept and love one another despite stark differences. These experiences serve as reminders of how powerful and nearly universal the desires are to connect with each other and develop deep, emotional bonds, both platonic and romantic. That fundamental skill of connecting to each other is attunement.
WHAT ATTUNEMENT LOOKS AND FEELS LIKE
Attunement is the ability to be aware of your own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person. It is the fundamental social skill and the foundation of human relationships, without which we are isolated from others and cut off from our own inner life. Attunement relies not only on spoken language, but also on the communication of feeling states through unspoken signals that we exchange, such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Reciprocal communication is a dance between attention and gesture that flows most effectively when people are in tune with one another. The nonverbal components of communication start to develop almost as soon as we are born, and they are nurtured in our interactions with our parents or caregivers. We continue to develop them over the course of a lifetime. In relationships and interactions of any depth, attunement plays an important role.
Attunement helps us to feel aware of ourselves and connected to another person and it helps that other person feel just as connected to us. Attunement is a whole-body experience, both kinaesthetic and emotional, in which you can sense someone’s rhythm, affect and experience by essentially feeling like you’re in their skin.
Attunement goes one step past empathy by creating a two-person experience of feeling connected, which is accomplished through reciprocal, dynamic responding to one another’s emotional states, needs and desires. Attunement should not be viewed as simply fostering a touchy-feely emotional connection with others, but as a unique power— a power that enables us to perceive communications from others, to connect and have our message understood and to manage conflict.
Rather than an abstract, intangible concept, attunement is based on a specific set of skills which, research suggests, can be developed with time and practice. True social-emotional attunement can most easily be identified as those moments in which your attention is completely engrossed in a social interaction with someone, whether that someone is your closest confidante or a recent acquaintance.
You can have a quality interaction with someone that includes elements like mindfulness, presence of mind, active listening, empathy and cognitive understanding, but any one of these skills on their own is not attunement. True attunement is born from all of these elements working in conjunction, which allows you to be in sync and in tune with someone’s expression of their experience.
The more you learn about attunement, the more you’ll start to notice the diversity and versatility of these skills in your life and in the lives of others. Attunement can be useful in different ways, depending on the situation and type of relationship. Attunement involves not a merger or simple mirroring of each other. Rather, it requires a kind of turn-taking, push-pull type of interaction, with an alternation of leading and following. Finding the balance of knowing when to push or pull and when to follow, can sometimes be the most challenging element of attunement. Attunement is grounded in a shared goal that requires many elements, some of which include close listening, full attention, setting aside egos, equal participation and the potential for failure.
Close relationships are the classic situations in which attunement comes into play, but attunement can also play an important role in enhancing our ability to function in less intimate interactions, such as with acquaintances or even people who we’ve just encountered for the first time. Generating some degree of attunement with others does not require knowing them well, nor does it require having lengthy, deep, meaningful conversations. An attuned interaction is born from the experience of being present and connected with someone, for however long or short that connection may last.
In less intimate situations, attunement skills enhance your ability to stay calm and to keep your eyes and ears open to perceive the other person clearly and accurately. By maintaining some awareness of your own reactions (e.g., becoming overwhelmed, distracted, emotional), you’re often better able to handle anything that arises between you and the other person, and to do so much more skilfully.