Some years ago psychologists were pointing out the unrealistic expectation that some people have that their partners “should” be able to know what they want or “read their mind”. Indeed that is an unrealistic expectation and gradually we are learning the importance of speaking up and telling our partners what we need, want, feel or think. Being attuned to another person, however, is a vital skill for a good enough relationship.
Researchers report that nonverbal communication makes up between 80 to 93% of our communication process. Because nonverbal messages express emotions more genuinely, being attuned to others and ourselves results in more effective communication and better relationships. As relationships mature, we become more attuned to the nonverbal communication of our partner.
The ability to be attuned to others begins to develop when we are infants. If our caregivers are well attuned to us, understanding and responding appropriately to our nonverbal communications, we will learn how to be attuned to others, gradually, as we grow up. Attunement is a social skill that we learn best during early childhood. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. For instance, a mentally ill, depressed or alcoholic mother or father will not be able to be well attuned to her or his children. Their children will often grow up without being appropriately heard, understood or empathized with. Because of this, the children’s ability to recognize and understand their own emotions (self-awareness) will not develop well enough for them to recognize, understand and empathize with other’s emotions.
Many adults with poor self-awareness and attunement skills have difficulty recognizing the nonverbal communications of others. They misinterpret or confuse emotional sounds, often over or under reacting to another person’s nonverbal sounds such as a sigh, moan or groan. Some have negative responses to another person’s expression of sadness or pain. At times they feel disgusted by normal, healthy emotional reactions, because they misinterpret or feel uncomfortable with genuine emotional expressions.
This leads to many relationship problems. As two people get to know and understand one another better, it becomes important for them to become increasingly well attuned to each other. For instance, if one person is feeling some frustration, an attuned partner will be able to “read” the degree of frustration and may recognize why their partner is frustrated without their talking about it. This is helpful when two people are engaged in an important activity together, such as raising a child, and need to be able to support one another, quickly and non-verbally.
Being attuned to one’s partner is important for a satisfying sex relationship. Many people misread their partner’s sexual responses. Some do not talk with their partner about how they could improve their lovemaking skills. Many choose to read a book and make decisions about their partner from what they’ve read in a book or article. The best solution is to have an honest and open dialog with your partner concerning sexual likes and dislikes, while increasing your ability to read your partners signals by becoming increasingly well attuned to him or her.
Increasing self-awareness, or being attuned to ourselves, is the first step toward being able to be attuned to others. We can do this in the moment and from moment to moment. A great time to begin is now. Even as you read these words become aware of your body. First notice if you feel uncomfortable anywhere in your body. Send your awareness to that spot and continue to focus on that spot until it relaxes and feels more comfortable. Then, take a deep breath, feel it fill your diaphragm; allow your chest and abdomen to expand. Then let the breath go, feel it float out through your nose. Notice as your belly deflates. Continue to breathe this way as you scan your body, from your scalp to the tips of your toes, with your awareness. You can do this as slowly or quickly as you wish. Physical awareness is the first step toward increased self-awareness. Then you can pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Being mindful of yourself is being attuned to yourself. Psychological awareness is vital. Know what you are thinking and feeling. Be aware and accepting of all your feelings. Our patriarchal culture wants us to dissociate from the energy of our emotions, which results in an anxious attempt to deny them. If we know what we are feeling we can use the energy of those emotions to improve our relationship to others and ourselves. If we deny our own pain, it is more difficult to recognize the pain of others. The result is an increase in conflict.
To transfer this attunement to others, learn to listen with every fiber of every sense you have. Look at the other person and notice changes she or he exhibits in his or her affect. As you listen to him or her, listen for changes in tone of voice. As you increase your ability to be attuned to someone, two types of thinking that can interfere are projection and interpretation.
Projection occurs when a person throws his or her own ideas or impulses onto another person. We are usually not aware that we are doing this. However, a person with a high level of self-awareness will recognize when they are doing this, more quickly than the person with less self-awareness.
We interpret what others say or do often. As we try to take care of the needs of babies, for instance, we interpret; “If I were that baby I would be feeling hungry (cold, tired, bored).”
Interpretation can be a good thing to do with the right people at the right time. However, we do make mistakes. People who are better at attunement will be better at interpretation. If you can, it is better to ask someone what he or she is feeling or thinking, rather than interpreting. When you notice a change in someone’s affect or tone of voice, ask them about it. When you interpret the changes, you may make a mistake, or you may be projecting your own thoughts or feelings. This is especially true if you are just learning how to be an attuned person.
Judgment and criticism also interfere with attunement. When we judge the other person, we have stopped listening. Sometimes we judge or criticize the person we are relating to because we feel hurt or insecure. If we are not self-aware and do not recognize or accept those feelings, we become defensive. It is out of this defensiveness that we become judgmental or critical. This brings us back to the importance of self-awareness. When we recognize and accept those vulnerable feelings, we can take care of ourselves and ask the other person for what we really need. Doing this reduces defensive behaviors allowing us to increase our ability to be attuned to each other.
Good enough relationships involve two people who can allow themselves to be open to one another. To do this we must increase our self-awareness and understanding by recognizing the value of all our emotions. As we strengthen and deepen our respect for all our feelings, we can relax the hyper-vigilance it takes to prevent ourselves from feeling. Then we can become attuned to one another, increasing our ability to love.
Anne is a Board Certified Registered art therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor. Anne has been studying human development and relationships for over 45 years. She has been successfully working with families, in various capacities, for over 20 years. Her private practice is in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia PA. She specializes in helping people recover from various types of trauma, difficult changes and loss. Anne has an unusual ability to connect with children and adolescents, along with their parents. Parenting is the most important job we ever do, yet no one shows us how to do it or gives us the support we need. Anne has successfully coached many parents through a variety of critical stages in their children’s lives. Anne’s greatest joy is helping people understand themselves and each other.
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