Attunement is showing up with presence and care for people in our life. It is a connected state between two people or a group of people where you can feel each other.
In this state, people feel cared for and listened to. Attunement is not evaluative or judgmental. It is not about being superior. It is about listening with your whole self.
A goal of attunement is one we can all work on. Because, being in relationship with another person comes with all kinds of challenges. For example, how can we understand another person’s needs? How can we know how to support them? One of the ways we do this is through attunement with them. Let me explain.
What does attunement mean?
It is difficult to describe exactly what attunement means in words. It is a feeling state between people. I think it may be best understood if we think about parent/child relationship. When a parent attunes to his child he or she is fully aware of the child’s needs by focusing on them and paying attention to how the child is feeling. It starts with presence. The parent is completely there with the child and not thinking about something else. Then the parent shows caring for their child and wants to help alleviate their discomfort. This is a moment where the parent is able to help the child to regulate their emotional response to a feeling of discomfort.
When parents connect with their children in this way they actually create a neurological bond. In their book, Brain-Based Parenting, Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin talk about the release of chemicals that help the parent and child synchronize.
“Each moment of such attuned affect facilitates the brain’s development and promotes attachment and bonding. Remember, it’s in these moments of attunement that both parent and child are most likely to release oxytocin and to feel “in sync” with one another.” (Baylin, Hughes and Seigel 2012)
It is these moments of “syncing up” that create the long-term stability of relational success.
In my own life I notice this happening in my close relationships. There are times when a good friend is struggling to find their way and I can drop all of the noise of the moment and really tune in to their experience. I feel a sweet caring in my heart and the moment usually seems to slow down. Often times very little needs to be said. The person I’m in attunement with is aware of my presence unconsciously. The other person’s nervous system starts to take in the emotional nourishment I’m providing. Afterwards, my friend isn’t aware of what just happened but they usually feel better and will end our conversation with a “thank you.”
In our primary relationships the ability to be connected in this way is critical. Just as young children need adults to help them get out of difficult emotional experiences our partners also need us to help them regulate their emotions.
In this example, Jim is attuning to Linda as she is struggling with some difficult issues at work.
Linda: I’m kind of losing it these days with my boss constantly telling me what to do (sounds exasperated).
Jim: (moving closer) That sounds really hard.
Linda: It’s so hard. I’ve tried to talk with her about it but she continually micro-manages my work.
Jim: (putting his hand on Linda’s leg) Hmmm…I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
Linda: Me too. I’m not sure what to do.
Jim: Is there anything I can do?
Linda: No. It’s good to talk about it. Thanks.
Notice a couple of things that Jim didn’t do. Jim didn’t try and solve Linda’s problem.
When we are in attunement to our partners, we come with a sense of care and openness to their present experience. We come into our hearts and feel how hard this is for them. When we go into problem solving, we move out of the emotional content and force our partner to get out of their emotions. This often feels like a lack of attunement.
Jim also was moving closer and using his body to help Linda feel safe. Often times, when someone is feeling a lot of activation in their nervous system, it is moving towards a kind of fight/flight response. We can help alleviate this dysregulation by using our hands or some other way of contacting our partners to bring them back to a more regulated place.
The real power of attunement is just showing up.
Linda is less burdened just by Jim’s willingness to be with her and listen. The outcome may be that Linda comes to some solution on her own but when we attune with our partners we are not trying to fix or change them in any way. We are just being with them and accepting their struggle.
My experience with many of my clients is a struggle in attuning. Many times they are unable to be present, or, when they are present, they have a hard time getting access to their emotions. When this happens, they may feel awkward in being there for their partner. This leads them to turn away or try and solve their partner’s problems. And, further, that then leads to disconnection and a feeling of hurt for both partners.
Developing more emotional intelligence and mindfulness can really support people struggling in this way. This is a learned skill no different than any other skill.
If you, or someone you know, would like to work on being more attuned in their relationships, feel free to reach out to me.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
Baylin, Jonathan, Hughes, Daniel A & Siegel, Daniel (2012). Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York, New York, W.W. Norton and Company.