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Learning how to Attune

Have you ever heard your partner complain of you ignoring or dismissing him or her or heard your partner say things like:  "My needs just don't matter to you.", "You're so selfish."  "I'm all alone in this relationship."?  These are often expressions of a longing for attunement.  You might  feel baffled when hear your partner say these things.  It seems to you that things are going along just fine.  His or her complaints seem to come out of nowhere and you find yourself defending and arguing.  You know you care and you're a good person and yet you hear your partner saying you're not.  You think you have to fight to be seen for who you are.

But of course, these accusations and complaints aren't really about you, they are tragic expressions of your partner's feelings and needs.  In an ideal world, your partner would express his or her attunement needs directly and make very specific requests, effectively training you in attunement.  Unfortunately, it is a rare individual that knows what requests to make, much less that feels confident enough to ask.  Regardless of how well your partner expresses his or her needs, you will still benefit the relationship by  learning how to attune.

Begin learning attunement by separating your self-worth from your lack of attunement skills and bringing compassion for yourself.  There is no reason that you should already know how to attune to your partner in a way that meets his or her needs.  Like playing an instrument, attunement skills increase with practice.  Your goodness and your good intentions are not in question.  If defending, explaining, and justifying are common activities for you, then it's helpful to find resources that help you land in a solid sense of your own goodness.

Attunement means tuning in to another's experience as fully as possible in order to offer caring, support, and celebration.  It's important to distinguish this from vigilance, which involves tuning in to assess and avoid threats.  On a practical level attuning means you are often looking at and/or listening to your partner with curiosity.  You get curious about his or her feelings, energy level, needs, and activities.  You remember what your partner shares and consider how s/he is affected by things.   In summary, you are willing to make space in yourself for your partner's experience.

If someone were observing you attuning to your partner, they might notice you offering the following:  

When your partner expresses something, you look up and make eye contact, ask follow up questions or reflect back what you heard or make a guess at feelings and needs.  You commit to making sure your partner has a sense of being heard before switching the topic of conversation.  You offer a simple "uh-huh" as you listen.  You frequently offer eye contact, a smile, and affectionate touch.  You ask questions about how your partner is doing and what he or she needs.

You can begin learning how to attune by giving yourself specific and simple practices on particular occasions or for a set amount of time like an hour, day, or a week.  Here are some examples of practices you might assign to yourself:

  • Each time my partner enters the room, I will set down what I'm doing, look up, and make eye contact or ask how s/he's doing.

  • Rather than read the paper during breakfast, I will focus on noticing my partner's physical, emotional, and mental state.

  • Whenever I am talking with my partner, I will give him or her my full attention (I won't multi-task).

  • During meditation, I will bring my partner into my awareness and ask myself to simply feel and notice life from his or her perspective.

  • On my own, I will make a list of my partner's most common requests and/or complaints and use the feelings and needs list to guess his or her feelings and needs.

  • The next time my partner says something that I don't agree with, I will make at least one attempt to understand his or her perspective better, before sharing my view.

  • I will make a guess at what my partner might need and offer to meet that need before s/he asks.

  • I will set up a specific date or series of dates with my partner in an environment which is supportive of presence and attunement.

Attunement skills are also enhanced by regularly attuning to your own experience with kindness and compassion.  And of course, a hectic, over-scheduled life makes attunement pretty difficult.  The more balance and resource you organize in your life, the more you can attune to others and offer caring, support, and celebration.



If you want to enhance your attunement skills, choose one of the bulleted practices above to try for the rest of this week.  If you are happy with your attunement skills and would like more attunement from your partner, choose something that you could ask for making it very specific and for a specific amount of time or even just in the moment.


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1 Response

  1. May 09, 2015

    Hi LaShelle -
    I appreciated this post, and was struck by "I will make a guess at what my partner might need and offer to meet that need before s/he asks." I have a friend who studies NVC and doesn't ever "offer" because he says that I should ask for what I want or need. Can you comment on the concept of offering in general and as it relates to NVC's focus on making requests? (I've been unable to find anything about "offering" in NVC writings online.) I see offering as an expression of empathy and care, and feel the imbalance in the relationship with one person offering and the other not. I know I also tend to slide into "if he doesn't offer, he doesn't care" thinking, and other judgments and "hurt" feelings - perhaps you could comment on that, too? Thank you so much. I appreciate these weekly blog posts, as they deepen my consciousness of and reflection on the dynamics in my relationships.

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