Recently I was out to dinner with some friends. The restaurant was packed, and clearly the wait staff was missing a person or two. Our server was taking care of a huge section of the restaurant and was quite frazzled. His stress came across as frustration.
“What can I get for you?” he said in a rushed, distracted, agitated tone which communicated that he was viewing our party as an imposition at the moment.
I felt immediately a bit put-off. But then I looked around, noticed his situation, and felt a wave of empathy for this young man who was in over his head.
“You’ve got your hands full here tonight. We’ll try to give you our orders quickly,” I responded. The waiter’s face immediately softened.
“Take your time,” he said. Throughout the rest of the dinner, he had a different air about him. Still rushed, but calmer and with no more visible frustration.
This little example illustrates how powerful it can be when you notice someone’s situation and feel his feelings, even for only a quick moment. I have found that emotional attunement is an incredibly powerful factor in marriage, friendship, and even business.
Think of emotion as a strong current that flows constantly below the surface of our lives. We all get swept up by the river at moments of stress, loss, or hurt. No one is immune. In those moments when the current envelops us, we feel immediately steadied and grounded when someone takes a moment to understand and connect.
Here are some examples which show emotional attunement vs. emotional absence in different types of relationships.
Karen: My boss yelled at me again today. I’m fed up with her. Tom’s emotionally absent response: Just ignore her. She’s an idiot. (This response completely misses Karen’s feelings and her need for understanding.) Tom’s emotionally attuned response: That’s unacceptable! (Here Tom validates how difficult this would be to tolerate.) You must have wanted to yell back. (He validates Karen’s anger.)
With this response, note that Tom also seems angry, which shows that he is feeling Karen’s anger. She will experience his empathy, and will be immediately soothed. She will also feel closer to her husband.
Tom: I’m going to have to get a new car soon. It’s going to strain the budget since I’ve been unemployed for six months (shaking head sadly).
Doug’s emotionally absent response: They have some good deals at that used car dealership on the corner. (Here, Doug addresses the logistics, and ignores Tom’s feelings.)
Doug’s emotionally attuned response: Oh man, that stinks. (Here Doug validates Tom’s sadness and demonstrates empathy.) Are you really stressed out at this point? (Doug shows caring by opening the door for Tom to share further.)
Emotionally absent Christina to her overworked, exhausted employees: I’m going to need you all to stay late again tonight. We have to come up with a workable bid by 8 a.m. tomorrow or we could lose this account. (Here Christina communicates facts in a business-like manner but with no awareness of the needs or feelings of the employees.)
Emotionally attuned Christina to her overworked, exhausted employees: You all look exhausted! Which makes it all the more difficult to tell you that we have to come up with a bid by 8 a.m. tomorrow or we could risk losing this account. I’m sorry to have to ask you all to pitch in one more time. We’ll all work together, and we’ll do it quickly and effectively, and then we’ll go home and see our families and get some sleep. (Christina acknowledges the employees’ feelings and needs, sets up a positive team attitude, and offers relief in the end.)
An important feature of emotional attunement is that it cannot be faked. Human beings have emotional antennas which tell them when another person is feeling their feelings. Faked attunement falls flat.
To harness the magic of emotional attunement, start paying more attention to the subterranean stream that flows through all of our lives. Strive to notice what the people around you are feeling, and to offer them attunement. Experience that magic moment of connection more often, and enjoy the enriched relationships that follow. Your own life will feel more steady and grounded.