What is Attunement? Why is it important?
There’s a very important factor that determines whether one or both parties in a relationship feel seen and nurtured. It is applicable to all relationships, romantic, platonic, therapeutic, and familial. It is essential to avoid miscommunication, fights, or hurt feelings. This is a key factor. attunement. I’ll give the clinical definition first because it’s a word we often use in the field of psychotherapy and so you have a full picture of what attunement is and then I’ll describe attunement in layperson’s terms.
Attunement is a “kinesthetic and emotional sensing of others knowing their rhythm, affect, and experience by metaphorically being in their skin, and going beyond empathy to create a two-person experience of unbroken feeling connectedness by providing a reciprocal effect and/or resonating response,” according to clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Erskine.
This sentence is full of information. However, some keywords are “sensing,” “empathy,” and “connectedness.” Putting them together, you could say attunement is sensing another person’s experience and using empathy (as well as action) to create connection. Another way of putting it is reading the “emotional room” of another person. It’s sensing when another person needs comfort versus space. It’s understanding when to support your partner versus when to let them flounder. If this sounds complicated, it is! It is a learned skill and requires conscious practice.
Childhood is where we first experience attunement. A baby can’t express their feelings with words if they are hungry, tired or have a poopy poo. It’s up to the caregiver to make that assessment and do something about it. This is where pediatrician and child psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott’s principle of the “the good enough [parent]” comes into play, meaning, reacting to an infant responsively and sensitively over time allows the infant to be appropriately dependent and to transition to an increasingly more autonomous position. But attunement doesn’t stop in infancy – it’s relevant throughout a person’s life. The key is not just becoming aware of another person’s feelings, it’s also taking appropriate action.
It’s one thing if a caregiver hears their kid cry and says, “Oh, they’re hungry,” and another thing to actually feed them. The same applies to adults. Empathy is an excellent first step that invites curiosity about another’s experience, but it only goes so far. Action, even if it’s just listening, is what creates attunement. I’m not saying you have to be a mind reader and intuit what another person needs. Nor should you assume someone else’s feelings. Communication and checking in are important in mature adult relationships.
One caution: Too much attunement can lead to codependence or dependence. Codependency is a person who compulsively gives to others and swoops in to help them. With codependency there’s a sense of sacrifice – the person is sacrificing their time, their energy, or even their sense of self. That’s not what I’m advocating. Healthy boundaries are essential for safe and successful relationships. This means that you must recognize your limits as well as those of others.
Instead, emotional attunement involves the perspective that you’re on the same team as your partner. You are working together and supporting one another while you navigate your emotions, good and bad. When this isn’t done, it’s a form of abandonment and it erodes trust in the relationship. Attunement builds trust, rapport, and trust. So, how do you get attunement? DoHow can you create emotional attunement Continue reading.
How to create emotional attunement
Find your safe place
For emotional attunement, one step is required. Safety. If you don’t feel safe expressing your emotions, attunement will be difficult. Safety can be achieved with both verbal as well as nonverbal cues. For instance, if the person you’re in relationship with – a friend, a coworker, a parent – shuts down and emotionally withdraws whenever you express anger, you’ll quickly learn they are not a safe person for you to be angry around. You won’t want to clue them in to how you’re feeling because it’s worse than keeping your anger bottled up.
Safety is also related to expressing your feelings OwnSafely express your emotions. If you punch the wall when you’re mad, you’re not a safe person to be around either. Emotional Attunement is about feeling your emotions even if you want to push them away. It also requires that you are able and willing to accept your feelings in a non-harmful environment. It could also mean allowing yourself to be alone when you need it, and communicating this with your partner. It could also be about working with a trained professional.
Listen before You speak
Instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next, really listen to what the other person is saying. By giving someone your full attention, you’re letting them know you care about their experience, which is crucial for emotional attunement. You’re also signaling that they matter because you’re not centering yourself in the conversation, meaning you’re not making the conversation about youWhat and how? YouYou can help. (By the way, I have a PDF about this if you’re interested.)
Attunement may sound like mind reading, but I promise, it’s not! Ask questions if you don’t understand something the other person is saying. This helps them feel understood and valued. It indicates you’re present with them because you’re really trying to learn what’s going on for them.
Notice nonverbal cues
The reality is sometimes we don’t know how we’re feeling, or our outsides don’t match our insides. You’ve likely had the experience where someone says they’re fine and clearly, they’re not. You can use nonverbal cues such as posture, facial expressions and energy levels to help you understand how the other person feels and then act accordingly. It’s also important to ask questions here when you notice the nonverbal cues to ensure you’re not making assumptions. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re lying down a lot. Are you tired? Or is there something else going on?”
Share the reality
Emotional attunement can be described as being on the same wavelength or sharing your reality. If your partner is sad about losing the job they hated, reflect back that sadness: “I hear you. It sounds like you feel sad.” If you respond with, “That’s great, babe! You didn’t like that job anyway!” your partner won’t feel seen, heard, or understood. You don’t have to agree with them, but demonstrating you understand how they’re feeling will go a long way.
Identify your triggers.
Each person has a sensitive subject. It could be something physical like going bald or something that is related to past traumas like being cheated upon. Whatever it is, it’s important to be aware of what your triggers are so you can communicate that to your partner. You will be able to avoid being reactive and you can possibly avoid an emotional landmine. Identifying triggers goes both ways – encourage your partner to share their triggers as well (if that’s appropriate) so you know what to avoid or how to support them in feeling safe.
Emotional attunement takes practice and is a skill. It’s not something learned overnight but there are actions you can take today to feel closer to the people in your life and vice versa. You can share this article with them to build a satisfying relationship.
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Erskine, Richard G. “Attunement and involvement: Therapeutic responses to relational needs.” International Journal of Psychotherapy. January 1998; Vol. 3:3, pp. 235-244.
Killoren, Caitlin. “6 Tips for Practicing Emotional Attunement in Relationships.” Relish. July 15, 2021. https://hellorelish.com/articles/emotional-attunement.html
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