How people experience their relationships emotionally determines how well or poorly we relate to each other. According to Dr. John Gottman*, trust is critical for creating and maintaining positive, healthy, intimate relationships. Gottman came up with the acronym “ATTUNE” to help couples learn the critical skills needed to build emotional trust. But these skills can be applied to and used to strengthen ALL relationships.
“Attunement is the mechanism. It is the basis for building trust.”
~ Dr. John Gottman
- Turning Toward
The ‘attunement conversation’ helps people to learn to trust each other with their emotions. Every time you successfully ATTUNE to another, you are also making deposits in your emotional bank account with that person.
AWARENESS refers to knowledge of the other’s world: their thoughts, feelings, and current circumstance. To have a healthy, positive relationship, you must consciously look for and acknowledge each other’s emotions. Asking questions like, “How are you doing?” or even a simple, “What’s up?” provide an opportunity to take an “emotional temperature” and identify another’s emotional state. This desire to “see” is imperative, for without recognizing the emotion, you won’t be able to turn toward the other’s emotion.
TURNING TOWARD speaks to your willingness to enter the other’s world. It includes your positive responses to another’s bid for connection. But it also refers to the willingness to reach out when you sense the other needs connection. Being ‘emotionally available’ is a decision. ‘Turning toward’ demonstrates that you care enough for the other person to engage with them. It says you want to understand her experience, whatever she is going through, and whatever she may be feeling, however that might be for you in the moment. It’s easier to do when the other person is experiencing something positive. It may be even more important when the other’s experience is negative.
Tolerance is the ability to consider different viewpoints and emotions than your own. One must also be able to both accept another’s reality AND able to hold off on expressing one’s own reality to be able to do the other steps. Avoid emotionally dismissive comments like “look on the bright side”, “at least…”, “let it go already” or “ it’s no big deal.” Otherwise, you run the risk of sending the message that their concerns don’t matter or are unimportant to you. You do not have to adopt or agree with the other person’s perspective or feelings, but you must be willing to recognize and respect them, however uncomfortable both their and your emotions might be.
UNDERSTANDING refers to your attempt to ‘get’ another’s perspective and emotions. To really understand how someone else is feeling and what he is thinking, you must momentarily suspend your own beliefs, ideas and feelings. It’s okay to say, “Help me understand.” Seek first to understand by “walking a mile in their shoes”. The other must know that you care and understand before you even attempt to express your own thoughts and feelings.
NONDEFENSIVE listening is the most effective way of responding to those sometimes uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. As the listener, your task is to help the other person clarify his feelings and perceptions. Instead of becoming defensive or attacking, take a moment to ask yourself, “How will my comment help clarify what she is thinking or feeling?” Simply repeat back the gist of what you heard, in your own words and any ‘big-ticket’ emotions you identified. It’s important to let the other express himself without argument. Responding to the other’s thoughts and emotions without judgement encourages their open communication and trust.
EMPATHETIC responding is how you show the other person that you ‘feel it’. Although you might feel empathy, your response is how the other person knows it. Accurate identification, acknowledgement and validation of another’s feelings and emotions is how we demonstrate empathy. It involves a true understanding of what it’s like to be that person in the situation described. You’re showing empathy when the other ‘feels felt’. Empathy demonstrates tenderness and kindness for another’s emotions. In effect, it says, “it is reasonable to feel that way – anyone in your shoes might feel the same.”
You can learn more about attunement from Dr. Gottman here: