Missing Each Other (2021) is a scientifically sound exploration of human connection. This wide-ranging primer explains how to truly bond with others in our fast-paced world.
A step-by-step approach to connecting.
These days, so many of us live in bustling, crowded cities. We spend hours video-chatting with friends, or interacting with countless acquaintances through social media.
So why do so many of us feel isolated and lonely?
One answer lies in the way we communicate. While our fast-paced, media-rich lives give us plenty to do, they can also keep us from truly connecting with one another.
Luckily, another world is possible.
These summary delve into the science of human connection by drawing on the latest research into neuroscience and psychology. They’ll introduce you to the four pillars of human connection: relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness. And they’ll also show you how to overcome the barriers that keep us apart.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- what NBA superstars share with meditating monks;
- why millions of people love Oprah; and
- how Amazon’s Alexa is different from a true friend.
Attunement helps us build strong and intimate social bonds.
Imagine you knock on a friend’s door. But when she answers, you can see that something’s off. You don’t get the usual grin and hug – instead, she greets you with a quiet hello and a slight frown. As you step inside, she mentions that her pet has just died.
How do you react? Well, that depends. Maybe your friend is devastated by the loss and wants to sob, mourn, and be comforted. She may need a shoulder to cry on. Or perhaps she’s upset but doesn’t want to dwell on the pain. So, instead, you lift the mood by telling stories and jokes.
In either case, you’re sensing her emotional state and reacting appropriately. This process is called attunement and it’s an essential part of human relationships.
The key message here is: Attunement helps us build strong and intimate social bonds.
Humans are social creatures. Over the millennia, we’ve relied on mutual cooperation to survive and thrive. As a result, we’ve evolved a deep need to connect with one another. This tendency is apparent right from birth – just look at how infants gaze at the faces of their caregivers, how they reach for that friendly smile. As we age, we refine this impulse into social skills that help us build happy and healthy relationships.
Attunement is a social skill that lies right at the foundation of all human contact. At its most basic, it’s the power to sense and understand our own emotions and the emotions of others. This skill helps us align the two in a productive way. When two people are attuned to each other, they share a profound connection and intimacy.
Attunement can come in many forms; it can encompass the full spectrum of human emotions. It could look like a parent and child playing and laughing together. Or like two academics engaged in a deep and engrossing discussion. When jazz musicians fall into an improvisational groove, this is also a form of attunement. In each of these situations, the people involved are united because they’re sharing an intense emotional bond.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, moments of attunement are rare. Our busy lives allow little time to truly connect with each other, and new technologies like social media encourage us to have fleeting, superficial interactions. These circumstances leave many feeling lost and lonely. However, with a little effort, it’s possible to bring attunement back into your life. We’ll explore how in the next blinks.
Prepare for attunement by cultivating relaxed awareness.
Let’s say you’re talking to a friend. He’s trying to tell you a long, complicated story about recent relationship troubles. It’s clearly very important to him. And, while you want to understand the nuances of his situation, there’s something in the way. You’re struggling to pay attention.
You see, even while you’re hearing your friend speak, you’re not actually engaging with the conversation. Instead, your mind buzzes with other thoughts and feelings. You’re stressing about work, you’re considering your to-do list, you’re fighting off the need for a nap.
As it turns out, your mind and body are just a little too tense to truly practice attunement. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The key message here is: Prepare for attunement by cultivating relaxed awareness.
To be attentive and open to the emotions of others, you need to be in the right physical and mental state. Your body needs to feel calm, and your mind must be awake.
This is what’s sometimes called relaxed awareness, and it’s a prerequisite for attunement. Without it, you’ll be too distracted to really focus on your social interactions.
How do you cultivate relaxed awareness? It’s all about striking a balance. The goal is to feel serene, while remaining sensitive to what’s happening inside your body, and in the world around you.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this a flow state. If you want an example of flow, just think about professional athletes. When a seasoned player like Michael Jordan is in a flow, he’ll be acutely aware of everything that’s happening on court. But he’ll also remain calm enough to coordinate complex physical feats.
Luckily, you don’t need to be an NBA superstar to foster relaxed awareness. You can develop your own flow states by practicing mindfulness meditation. Try sitting in a comfortable position and breathing deeply. Pay attention to your body and relax any muscles that feel tense. And there’s no need to try to clear your mind. Simply let your thoughts flow through you, noting each one before it drifts away.
With consistent practice, you’ll become more aware of how your mind and body experience stress. And, importantly, you’ll learn to consciously curtail and calm those negative feelings. Over time, you’ll master the ability to conjure states of relaxed awareness and use them whenever you want to become truly attuned to another person.
Improve your ability to connect with others by learning to listen.
Oprah Winfrey is probably one of the most famous people in the world. For decades, her daytime talk show drew an audience of millions. Today, her SuperSoul Sunday series remains a massive hit. So, why is Oprah such a star?
Well, it could be her captivating personality. And it’s true, many people like hearing her talk. However, Oprah’s real talent is listening. The most memorable and moving moments of her career have always been her interviews. When people sit down with Oprah, they tend to open up and share.
Oprah’s innate knack for making people feel heard is certainly special, but it’s not unique. Listening is a skill like any other. With practice, you too can refine your ability to actually hear others.
The key message here is: Improve your ability to connect with others by learning to listen.
There’s a distinct difference between the physical act of hearing and the emotional act of listening. Most of the time, we’re merely hearing what people say. That is, our ears process someone’s words and extract the most pertinent information. Sure enough, this works for simple transactions like giving directions. But if you want to truly connect with another person, you must engage in deeper listening. This requires three elements.
The first is the practice of giving focused attention to your partner. This means tuning out background distractions in order to soak up all the different ways people communicate. When you’re really focused, you’re hearing your partner’s words, sure, but you’re also attending to her tone of voice, facial expression, and even body language. These subtle signals provide much-needed nuance that helps us grasp a person’s emotions more holistically.
Then, there’s synchrony. It occurs when you mirror the tones, movements, and facial expressions of your conversation partner. If you’re really engaged, this will happen automatically and unconsciously. Neuroscientists found that synchrony also occurs on a physical level: when two people are in deep conversation, their brain cells activate in the same rhythm.
The final element of listening is emotional empathy, or the phenomenon of feeling what your partner feels. For instance, if you intently listen to a sad story, you will also begin to feel blue. This resonance gives you visceral insight into the other person’s emotions. Catching someone’s feelings this way is a sure sign you’re on the path to attunement.
Build understanding by seeing the world from the perspective of the other.
Meet Naomi and Oliver. They’re friends, and they’ve agreed to meet for coffee. But their day is about to go off the rails.
First, Oliver arrives 15 minutes late and doesn’t even apologize. Then, when Naomi asks some friendly questions, Oliver’s responses are brusk and short. In the end, Naomi leaves, thinking Oliver has become rude and self-centered.
However, in reality, Oliver just came from the doctor’s office. He was late and distracted because he just got terrible medical news. If Naomi knew the broader context of Oliver’s behavior, she might’ve been more sympathetic. Similarly, if Oliver saw Naomi’s perspective, he might’ve been more candid about his situation. In either case, the two friends could’ve used a little more understanding.
The key message here is: Build understanding by seeing the world from the perspective of the other.
There’s nothing more satisfying than when you feel understood. In fact, one of the greatest sensations in life is when you’re surrounded by people who truly grasp your feelings, desires, and motivations. It’s what we seek in friendships and romantic relationships.
Yet very often the opposite happens: we feel misunderstood – or, perhaps, fail to really understand others.
This disconnect arises from something psychologists call misattribution. Misattribution happens when we incorrectly guess the roots of someone’s behavior. Such mistakes are unavoidable because two people can never share the exact same experiences or expectations. For instance, a behavior that may seem rude or irrational to you may in fact feel polite and logical to someone else.
It’s possible to overcome the barrier of misattribution through the practice of cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy means trying to feel what another feels, cognitive empathy is all about the rational. Its goal is to try and understand what the other person thinks. Essentially, to really understand someone, you must put yourself in their shoes. Of course, this is easier said than done.
To begin building cognitive empathy, make a habit of stepping back from social situations and considering them more objectively. For instance, rather than immediately getting offended, Naomi could take a moment to think about Oliver.
Why would he behave in this way? And under what circumstances would she, herself, act in a similar manner?
It takes a bit of imagination and a willingness to see things differently, but asking these questions can really help you understand another’s perspective.
To reach attunement, strive to meet people where they are.
Two figure skaters elegantly glide across the ice, each moving in step with the other.
A stand-up comedian works a crowd; just as the laughter peaks, he hits them with another punchline.
A pair of close friends talk late into the night; one nods along as the other describes her feelings.
Each of these three activities may seem completely different. However, they have more in common than you might think. In each situation, the individuals involved are highly harmonized. Their emotions and actions are not isolated – instead, they are constantly evolving, as the people play off each other.
This is mutual responsiveness, and it’s the final component needed for two people to become intimately attuned.
The key message here is: To reach attunement, strive to meet people where they are.
Attunement – as you’ll remember from previous blinks – is the ability to sense another person’s emotional state.
We’ve talked about relaxed awareness, and how cultivating it lays the necessary conditions for attunement. And we’ve also discussed how synchrony and cognitive empathy can help bridge barriers that keep us apart.
Mutual responsiveness is what happens when we put all these elements into action. In short, it’s what we actually do once we’ve reached attunement.
When somebody practices mutual responsiveness, she’ll be able to attend to her partner’s mental and emotional state. Crucially, she’ll also attempt to meet the other person’s needs proactively.
Sometimes this requires conscious attention, but it can also happen instinctively. When a parent crouches down and speaks to the toddler in a high-pitched funny voice, she’s anticipating the child’s mentality and responding in a manner that will build the best connection.
In interactions between peers, this desire to accommodate each other results in a phenomenon called contingent responsivity. When it works, each person is anticipating the signals communicated by the other and playing off them. The result is a lively back-and-forth. Contingent responsivity underlies any type of social situation that requires fluidity, from basic conversation to rapid-fire improv comedy.
Mutual responsiveness is also essential for regulating situations and de-escalating conflict. For instance, if someone is upset, it’s possible to rein in their passion. How? Try responding in a similar, but slightly calmer manner. By mirroring the other person’s affect and reflecting back a more subdued version of it, you show that you see and understand your partner’s emotional state. But you also extend an invitation to your own, more peaceful state.
If you’re in attunement, the offer will be taken.
Sophisticated computers can almost – but not quite – mimic attunement.
In 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing proposed a simple thought experiment: Imagine you’re in an isolated room, and you’re exchanging text messages with someone sitting next door. You type something out, they respond. You ask a question, they answer it.
Now, imagine that your conversation partner wasn’t a human, but a computer. Would you be able to tell? And, if you were, how long would it take?
This is called the Turing test, and so far no computer has successfully passed it. But this may change. All around the world, researchers are working hard to build machines that can beat this test. When they do, they’ll reach attunement.
The key message here is: Sophisticated computers can almost – but not quite – mimic attunement.
For decades, scientists have sought to build machines that can think and act like humans. Until recently, most of these attempts have fallen short of achieving true artificial intelligence, or AI. But new technologies like machine learning have made computers more adroit than ever. Machines can now best humans in complex games like chess, go, and poker. Increasingly, they can also mimic attunement.
But actual attunement and its artificial cousin are vastly different. Humans become attuned through empathy. This means that they intimately connect with one another and share feelings and awareness. Machines, meanwhile, can only simulate this process. An AI doesn’t really listen; it just gathers data to refine its programming.
Try talking with a virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Most of the time, these programs can process your words and respond appropriately. However, the conversation is stilted and obviously not as fluid as human-to-human interaction.
In the future, this may improve. Amazon has developed a technology that can analyze the pitch and tenor of human voices. The expectation is that it’ll help future Alexas determine the emotional states of their owners. Machines will then match the tone they hear, and that will help them mimic attunement.
Of course, artificial attunement raises many ethical dilemmas. Companies could use this technology to manipulate unsuspecting people into divulging personal information, or buying certain products.
Or the easy satisfaction of artificial intimacy could make humans more interested in interacting with machines than with each other. If computers ever truly master attunement, it could fundamentally alter society, an idea we’ll explore in the next blink.
Attunement starts small, but can have a big impact.
Consider the problems, conflicts, and dilemmas that are currently plaguing your life. Many of them are relatively small. They are things you can fix. Maybe your roommate doesn’t keep up with the chores, or perhaps your colleague often gets too stressed and frustrated to work effectively.
It’s easy to see how applying the skills of attunement can help alleviate these interpersonal issues. We’ve discussed the skills that can help: relaxed awareness, active listening, and mutual responsiveness can all lead the way to a better path forward.
Such are the small victories of attunement. But what about the bigger, more expansive troubles in your life and society at large? Could more attunement help these, too?
The key message here is: Attunement starts small, but can have a big impact.
While moments of attunement can definitely feel like singular, special occasions, they can’t exist in a vacuum. We talk about attunement as a practice, not just a one-off experience. Connecting in this way requires a sustained and conscious effort. So if you want to reap the real benefits of attunement, you’ve got to build a new habit, and its purpose should be to integrate attunement into your daily routines.
Start small. Next time you’re anticipating a stressful social event, try taking just a few seconds to cultivate relaxed awareness. Remember, this is where controlled breathing and meditation can help. Then, throughout the interaction, check in with yourself to see if you’re listening, understanding, and responding with a spirit of mutual cooperation.
With practice, these actions will become second nature, and moments of attunement will become more and more frequent.
Over time, your life may get quite a bit less stressful.
But attunement also has potential beyond our individual lives. Consider the entrenched societal problems it could resolve.
In contemporary politics, frictions are often exacerbated when people fail to listen and understand each other. A greater focus on attunement could help both leaders and ordinary people find points of agreement, or, perhaps, establish new ways to cooperate.
Examples of how it might work are beginning to emerge. There’s no doubt that issues like systemic racism and police violence are politically and emotionally charged. But new movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have found some success bridging these gaps.
This is partially due to a focus on attunement. People are encouraged to have difficult conversations about racism, listen to the experience of others, and find moments of understanding.
There’s still a long road ahead, but progress is possible if people keep connecting.
The key message in these blinks:
Our busy lives in a technologically mediated world make it difficult to really connect to the people around us. However, by practicing a few simple habits, you can create emotional attunement with others. Take the time to cultivate relaxed awareness, truly listen to your partners, and make an effort to engage in mutual responsiveness. Over time, your interactions will become more meaningful and rewarding.
Try tai chi.
Tai chi is an ancient martial art that involves slowly taking the body through a series of precise, deliberate movements. Practicing this art is very meditative and requires connecting one’s body and mind. In many ways, it’s similar to what you can do to create relaxed awareness. Introducing tai chi into your life could provide one creative way to prime yourself for attunement.
About the Author
Edward S. (“Ted”) Brodkin, M.D. is Associate Professor of Psychiatry with tenure at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the Founder and Director of the Adult Autism Spectrum Program at Penn Medicine. He has been honored as one of America’s Top Doctors by Castle Connolly Medical for more than a decade. He received his A.B. Magna Cum Laude from Harvard College and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He did his residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in neuroscience research at the Yale University School of Medicine, as well as a fellowship in genetics research at Princeton University. His research lab and clinical program at the University of Pennsylvania focus on social neuroscience and the autism spectrum in adults. In addition to his professional activities, he’s learned a lot about connection and attunement by playing clarinet in orchestras and chamber groups at The Juilliard Pre-College Division, through team sports, and through practicing Chen style Tai Chi for the past 10 years. He co-authored “Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections” with Ashley Pallathra (www.MissingEachOther.com), and he and Ashley are blogging on Medium (missingeachotherbook.medium.com) and Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/missing-each-other).
Ashley A. Pallathra, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and researcher. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree with Distinction in Neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania, she received a Master’s degree in Psychology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She is the author of numerous published research articles and a book chapter in the fields of autism research, social neuroscience, and social-emotional functioning in youth. Her current research and clinical work center around strengthening social competence and building resilience in children, adolescents, and young adults from diverse community settings.
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