How to Attune
I was not a naturally empathic person. I grew up living in my mind and ignoring my emotions. As we have met with couples, I have learned to validate and attune. This has made me a better caregiver and a better husband.
Jesus came to the earth full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Notice that grace came first. Offering grace first is demonstrating care and empathy before any truth is provided.
Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.”
First, offer grace. Listen to demonstrate your compassion. So, how exactly do you do this?
The University of Central Florida developed the Counseling Competencies Scale to evaluate new counselors’ competency. They studied these skills to see if they provided effective empathic listening. Then, they measured counselors’ competencies in each of these skills.
Below are four competencies that can help mentors and couples to improve their communication.
Have you ever felt that someone is not listening to you? Perhaps they look off into space or check their phone? A majority of our communication comes from nonverbal skills. This includes body position, eye contact, posture, distance from each other, voice tone, rate of speech, and use of appropriate silence.
If someone is sitting there with their arms crossed, it communicates that they aren’t open. If the same person would open their arms, lean forward a little, and look you in the eye, it would express more interest. I have found that nodding at times communicates acceptance.
When I coach couples in communication, they usually start by looking at me, the mentor. They are explaining what is happening in their relationship. When they say something vulnerable, I will often ask them to face each other, look into each other’s eyes and repeat the vulnerable statement. This can be very impactful.
Occasional encouragers can be helpful. An encourager is a way that communicates you are engaged. This can be as simple as saying, “Hmmm.” A more obvious approach would be saying, “Tell more about….”
Encouragers communicate that you are trying to understand and want them to continue speaking.
I attune to what others are saying by reflecting back what they say. This lets them know that I understand what they are saying. It also helps them to go deeper.
When couples talk to each other, they often think they know what their partner is saying. Sometimes they do understand, but sometimes they don’t. Often, they don’t understand the complex thoughts and feelings. We teach couples to reflect back what they are hearing.
Reflecting includes paraphrasing back thoughts or content. Often, couples see something very different. They have two different perspectives on an issue. I’ll paraphrase back the differing perspectives. “John, your perspective is….” “Mary, your perspective is….” By naming the differing thought content, it helps the couple to be able to understand that they have a difference of opinion.
Reflecting also means acknowledging feelings. Sometimes the feelings are not spoken. It could be, “When you talk about when your partner comes home late (thought), you seem to be angry (emotion).”
More simply, I may just respond with, “You’re angry.”
As a mentor, I often summarize the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I will ask about what happens during an argument, focus on finding deeper feelings, then ask about behaviors. “When your partner comes home late, you feel like he doesn’t care, so you become angry.”
Attuning to someone allows them to find deeper emotions, meaning, values, and core beliefs. People often are not aware of the deeper meaning behind the behavior.
One time, my wife and I were teaching a marriage seminar. We came to the part where we demonstrated empathic communication and attuning with each other. Michelle had picked out something I did that she didn’t like and hadn’t given me any warning about what we were going to demonstrate. She told me how she was angry that I had thrown out a receipt on the counter. The receipt was for some suntan lotion that was worth about $10.
We hadn’t used it, and she wanted to return it.
My initial response was to dismiss her anger by saying, “It’s only $10. What are you so worked up about?” However, we were in front of a room of people, and, instead, I attuned to her. I repeated what I heard and noticed how she was feeling. As I listened for only a few minutes, it helped Michelle realize that it wasn’t about the receipt. It was about not feeling that I valued her.
The deeper meaning of the receipt was that she felt good about contributing to our household. When I threw it away, it said to her, “Your contributions don’t mean anything.” My ability to attune helped her to go deeper into a hidden value and an insecurity.
When I’m working with couples, I attune first. I observe to see if there is a deeper meaning or a belief. Sometimes, I say something like, “I wonder if the receipt represents something else to you?”
Deeper meanings often include insecurities or longings. Often, couples fight over wanting to be noticed. They want their partners to be there for them. This is a great desire. I’ll say, “It sounds like you’re upset that your partner didn’t come home on time. You really wanted to spend time with him, and you feel abandoned when he’s not there for you. Is that right?”
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Practice Makes Perfect – OK, maybe you’ll never be perfect, but practicing these skills will help you to improve. People become better listeners because they practice these skills.
- These are Skills – These skills can be improved. Couples who don’t communicate well can learn to be better listeners and be there for their partners.
- If in Doubt, Attune – If you don’t know what to do in a conversation, attune. This is the essential part of helping others. Sometimes, you can feel unsure where to take a conversation. Attuning is always a great thing to do.
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This post is the third in a 3-part series:
Lambie, G. W., Mullen, P. R., Swank, J. M., & Blount, A. (2018). The counseling competencies scale: validation and refinement. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 51(1), 1–15.