This is attunement. It is the pinnacle marker of health of every relationship. It means relational homeostasis. It’s the 90-year old couple holding hands on the couch and finishing each other’s sentences. It’s what my clients are asking me for when they say they need relationship “help.”
They need attune-up.
This couple is not attuned.
Fortunately, there is a well-established pathway to the goal. It’s called Active Listening, and there are 3 simple parts. You can listen your way to health. This is for every single relationship. I’m laying out all of my tricks here. If you can pull this off, you can avoid coming to people like me. Just send me a thank you note.
BRAINS AND BEING HEARD
Let’s start with how brains learn.
At which stage in this process would you say learning takes place?
We love to think learning takes place because we taught them.
So, Stage 1? (A.k.a., I told him so he must know…) Nope. Stage 1 is just instinctual imitation. Kid has no idea why he’s copying mom.
How about stage 2? (A.k.a., people learn by doing…) Getting warmer. An old saying of teachers goes: “They don’t learn it when you’ve taught it to them. They learn it when they’ve taught it back to you.”
The real learning cements and encodes in the brain in stage 3. When the effort was affirmed and vulnerability is rewarded with positive attention.
This process attunes two brains – baby and mama – to a common language via a common experience.
Lets move now to adults and DEEP attunement, or Emotional Attunement.
All day every day, your brain floats through one or more emotions like these, at varying levels of intensity:
See this top half? These are negative emotions. Parents and people scrolling Twitter spend a lot of time in this half:
Negative emotions are a pain signal to help us identify and heal from a bad experience. We call them wounds or traumas. When our relationship gets “off”, its because we haven’t successfully processed these together. By processing, I basically mean digesting your feelings (very different from eating your feelings, which is ironically a way to avoid digesting them).
We process/digest the experience – NOT JUST BY TALKING — but by being LISTENED TO.
For good reason, no one really wants to deal with the other person’s 💩. Thankfully, we don’t have to process it for them! We actually just need to hang out with them while they eat their sad pizza. And try a bite with them. No one should eat alone.
PROCESSING TOGETHER: THE THREE STEPS TO ATTUNEMENT IN ACTIVE LISTENING
STEP 1: REFLECTION is when we hold up a mirror to their emotions, and embrace them, like how Mom did with baby:
Most people don’t walk around saying “I feel sad”. It would be nice if they did. So this guy gets it. He is next level. He doesn’t need her to say it. So he can actually move to level 2: yellow belt.
This is a completely appropriate response to her statement. When someone is upset, all you need to do is make reflective statements back to them until they know you hear under the surface. Take them to their emotions.
No questions, no rambling, no answers needed. No stories of my own. Just reflective statements. People in pain will talk for an hour if you let them, as we take them to deeper levels of themselves.
The tricky thing about reflection is we actually have to listen and don’t get to hijack the conversation with our agenda (sucks, I know). And as we listen, and reflect, the person opens up to deeper levels of what’s going on.
If we do this reflection job well, we will listen them to a point where we feel something within our own soul stirred because we get it. We feel their pain. Often, they will break down in tears.
This moves us to–
STEP TWO: EMPATHY, actually sharing the emotion. Homosapien magic.
You can’t fake this part. I’ve watched a lot of people try, and if there is one thing homosapien brains are good at, its detecting BS. If you’re not feeling them, they aren’t feeling you as you stumble through awkwardness. Fortunately, all you have to do is be real and your brain will do the rest.
STEP 3: ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY is when we move toward them, and eat a bite of their Sad Pizza.
We step in and share the load because we care. We may not have caused the problem — or maybe we did — but either way we take a tiny step closer to help them in their pain. This is where the magic happens:
OK, QUICK RECAP —
HOW THIS WORKS IN REALITY
Those are the bones of Active Listening. Now lets put some flesh and color to it.
Level 3: Active Listening and Reflecting Anger. This takes it to the next level because here is where we, the listener, can easily get flooded. Our emotions spike with theirs because we may be in danger. Anger is a trip circuit in our brain that heightens alertness and kickstarts defensiveness. No worries – keep calm and stick to the script. This is the brown belt test.
This time, someone is at fault and there is hell to pay. He likes his jaw located right where it is, so his brain may be freaking out and trying to deflect with these strategies:
All bad ideas that get you nowhere.
Also, telling her she is sad may not actually work in reality, because she doesn’t know she is sad. This hairball takes longer to untangle. So we start at the surface.
This guy read this article, so he remains calm and stays one step ahead.
Once she has responded with an affirmation, he knows she is feeling heard. Now she feels safe and more open to calming, where she can realize she is sad. You, the calm listener, are one step ahead. It is obvious to you, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Now that she feels safe, get to the point:
Now SHE knows she is feeling sad, because he helped her digest it. Now she can verbalize it and we can do that empathy thing.
LEVEL 4: Accusation is where we separate the grown-ups from the kids. Unfortunately, most of us will need a black belt for this.
This time, YOU’RE the target of the anger. Now, you REALLY have to play it cool. This one is less like untangling a hairball and more like defusing a bomb. At any point, our own emotions become triggered and our own quivering nerves will blow it all up.
SAME PROCESS: Start at the top, reflecting with a summary.
No defensiveness, no explaining. None of that. “You think” isn’t said with fear, anger, hostility, sarcasm, or mocking.
Yes, Seth the counselor gets it. You didn’t kill the hamster. Or you didn’t mean to do it. Or you weren’t trying to do it.
I get it, I get it, I get it.
OR– You are tired of being accused. Or you are exhausted from the 15 years of back and forth with this person. I get it.
OR — Your partner is emotional and irrational and a lunatic and you are tired of giving in and all those things.
I get it, I get it, I get it. Sucky for you, but none of those justifications are helpful now. You’re going to have to suck it up, put on your big boy/girl pants, and flush all those excuses down the toilet during this exchange.
Just stick with them, and stick to the script. And remember:
This guy is ready, because he still remembers:
Keep reflecting until what they are saying makes sense, and you understand their reasoning. Don’t stop seeking more info until you understand.
If you are truly a cool hand and have black belt skills, you will even be free to admit the part(s) where you were actually wrong, or the character flaw that got you accused. And it actually HELPS the situation.
Notice what you haven’t done yet. You havent:
- Agreed with them
- Been defensive
- Criticized or mocked
- Made excuses
- Dismissed emotions
- Told them they are right or they have a point
All you have done is listen to get their narrative right.
Maybe they are completely wrong. Most people self-correct when they hear themselves out loud reflected by a safe person.
Maybe they have completely mischaracterized you. Maybe they have been misunderstanding, accusing, and mischaracterizing you for 15 years. I can assure you that there is no brilliant thing you can say in one moment that will change the thousands of memories, subconscious reads, and assumptions they have of you. He can’t explain her from thinking “this is a guy who might kill hamsters” into thinking, “this guy would NEVER hurt a hamster.” Trust isn’t built through debate. So quit trying.
Keep letting them know you understand that it makes sense, until they get that you get them — and that you DON’T think they are crazy. Instead, stick to the script: “it makes sense that you are accusing me.”
Now that she has been heard and supported in her anger, with no shame, she will start to calm down and be more reflective.
No need for explanations or guesses. Just sit with them and practice empathy. Silence can be golden.
Maybe you’ll even get a chance to explain your side. But you won’t need to.
Remember the primary emotion(s) under the anger. Once we’ve defused the bomb, this takes us all the way back to the beginning of Level 1 active listening.
Remember the steps from there.
The beautiful thing is that no one needs you to be perfect. They just need to be listened out of their negative emotions, and then a new bond will take place:
We call it a repair, like when your muscles develop tiny tears during exercise, and heal. When we heal WITH our partner, we not only heal their emotional muscles, but we grow back together closer and more in tune. In the end, attunement through active listening builds a more formidable couple than you could have ever been before the pain.