Quick summary: In building an empathetic ability it is very important that people first advance their ability to attune to another person. I will briefly explain attunement, then I will offer a practical – easy to use – intervention.
Why Attunement is positive: Attunement is an operating strategy in which the participants are trying to be fully absorbed in the experience of the present moment. When we attune to another person we are becoming fully immersed in the emotional world of that person in the present moment. This leads the person who is feeling ‘attuned to’ to feel as though they are being deeply understood and that their present need and emotional reality is being ‘held’ by the listener or receiver.
Where attunement develops in Humans: Human babies cannot talk… so in order for their needs to be met, the primary caregiver(s) must be able to attune to the baby’s emotional reality to a degree that they can arrive at what the baby needs (food, more or less stimulation, a diaper change, a hug etc.) Human adults are not always very good at expressing what they need 😉 … so Attunement allows the listener to arrive at a need that may not be expressed very clearly using verbal communication.
Attunement has intrinsic and instrumental value: When a person feels attuned to they often are able to get a need met (get their diaper changed) – so attunement does have a significant instrumental value. Attunement facilitates a feeling of ‘secure attachment’ – you feel understood, as a ‘we’ (therefor not alone), safe, hopeful and connected. Such feelings are the building blocks for helping an individual to have courage in there authenticity such that they can achieve their fullest potential. So attunement is not simply a tool for getting concrete needs met… this method of operation creates meaningful connection.
What an ‘un-attuned’ experience’ feels like: We are trained and pre-programmed to primarily view our environment (and people) using one of two operating strategies = (1) logic, and (2) unconscious (automatic) labeling of the environment (and people) into three categories: Threat, Pleasure, and Neutral. The result of such operating strategies is somewhat a of ‘distanced’ feeling interaction with other people… this is because we are often not ‘seeing’ or ‘understanding’ other people as they truly are in the present moment; instead we are projecting unconscious and conscious conclusions onto them. The listener will therefor ‘understand’ or be able to parrot back the ‘correct’ information about a story, but they will have no insight into how the speaker felt while conveying the story in the moment, nor will they have insight into what the emotional and existential significance of the story was to the speaker. The result is that the speaker will feel alone and possibly a bit hopeless that the listener will actually be able to meet a need.
Attunement is the Solution: Often times the world presents us with problems that do not really have concrete solutions… in these instances feelings attuned to by another person facilitates a place of safety and connectedness that relieves the burden of the current problem.
Attunement and Empathy – Empathy is when the listener is able to affectively convey an understanding of the speaker’s internal emotional reality back to the speaker. Without attunement one’s empathetic ability is significantly disadvantaged as they would only have access to a very limited amount of information.
Empathy and Compassion – what we typically call empathy is actually empathy with compassion. Empathy is simply the ability to “put yourself into another person’s experience” to “put yourself into another’s shoes” and to be able to communicate this understanding. After doings such it is compassion that would guide you to offer kindness and support to that person’s emotional reality (as opposed to using your empathic ability to manipulate/exploit another person).
Attunement Intervention Exercise
There will be a Listener and a Speaker for this Exercise (and a therapist if applicable)
* Note: the speaker is always directed to speak toward the listener while holding as much eye contact as is comfortable. The speaker and listener should be facing one another.
Direction to the Speaker:
- Tell me a story about something that you are really grateful for… OR
- Tell me a story which that expresses who you are as a person OR
- Tell me a story about a meaningful experience that was emotionally significant to you…
Additional guidance for the speaker: try and tell a story which has emotional significance, and when telling the story try and make sure that you are displaying affect and using emotional adjectives.
(Note 1 for therapists: often times these stories occur organically in a therapy session, if not, you can set it up for this enactment to occur.)
(Note 2: Ideally the story will be about both participants. Ex. A story about why the speaker is grateful for the listener)
Directions for the Listener
- Pay close attention to the speaker’s non-verbals and energy.
- Energy – how is this person’s emotional energy affecting the climate of the current environment?
- Non-verbals – what emotions are being expressed through body language that may be congruent or incongruent with the verbalized narrative?
- I want you to listen to the plot, but the most important thing is to focus on how the speaker:
- Feels while telling you this story in the current moment (ex. Relieved, nervous, and sad)
- How the speaker was feeling about the story that is being told while the story was taking place. (ex. In the story she felt very proud and hopeful and she felt very validated that I was there for her.)
- What the listener does not do: no plot corrections, no trying to be right, no adding to the plot, no thinking and waiting to speak instead of listening, no projecting your own emotional experience onto the speaker.
Optional: questions to deepen the experience of the speaker:
- The therapist or listener asks the speaker a present moment somatic question…
- “how do you feel in your body right now in this moment?”
- “Can you point to where you feel more energy?”
- “Does that energy have a color … a texture?”
The therapist or Speaker will then invite the listener to share:
- “What where the emotions that the speaker was sharing in this moment (in this office) while telling his/her story?”
- “And what were the most important emotions relevant to the story when it occurred?”
The Listener shares missing parts: The listener than is invited to share any additional emotions that were important.
Time for Reflection: Finally the listener and the speaker are invited to share their emotional reaction to the exercise.
Optional: The therapist or the listener deepens the experience with immediacy. (immediacy is when you point out non-verbal language and either 1 ask a question (ex. what did that mean when you bit your lower lip while talking about your partner?) or 2 make an interpretation (ex.I noticed that you were saying you were happy but your eye lid lowered as if you were sad)