Why profound personal connections are lacking in our lives — and how to find them

We've lost a sense of feeling understood by each other. Two researchers think they can change that

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2021 2:00PM (EST)


Everyone has had the experience of having a conversation with someone only to completely forget what you and others said. Mid-pandemic, when so many of us are conversing over the tedious medium of video calls, being inattentive is the norm — as checking Twitter or playing Solitaire during a work meeting is certainly easier to do behind a laptop screen. Yet these kinds of distractions keep us from experiencing "attunement" with each other — which, as mental health researchers Ted Brodkin and Ashley Pallathra argue, is keeping us from truly connecting with one another.

In their just-released book, "Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections," Brodkin and Pallathra tie together years of research to make the case for the importance of deepening our connections via attunement, which they describe as a feeling of really clicking with someone and feeling understood. The two researchers — Pallathra is a therapist, Brodkin a psychiatry professor — give readers exercises to help practice attunement. 

As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you share more about how this book came to life?

Ted Brodkin: Ashley and I were working together at the University of Pennsylvania on a National Institute of Mental Health–funded clinical study to develop the program for adults on the autism spectrum to help with social functioning. And as we were working on that project together, we started to think more and more about this concept of attunement — that's central to the book as something that's important for people on the spectrum. But we realized this isn't just important for people on the spectrum, this is really important for all of us. And so we just started to think, maybe there's an important book to be written here that could be useful to a lot of people.

I don't think the idea of attunement is talked about a lot, especially in the realm of mental health. Obviously, the ability to connect with another person is one thing, but your book argues attunement is different. Can you explain what the difference is to our readers?

Ashley Pallathra: I think of it as when you put all the skills together that would encompass connection. There's an ephemeral piece that you feel when you're in a relationship with someone and you feel those high-level attunement skills, it's like an elevated version of all those skills put together. And that's kind of what we noticed from the study when we were working with the adults on the autism spectrum. Oftentimes a lot of mental health intervention, particularly for people on the spectrum, involved very discrete skills. So you're practicing, "how do we think about topics that are going to be relevant in a conversation?" Or, "how do I answer particular questions?" Or, "how do I think of a good follow-up question that would maintain a conversation well?"

But I think there's also this piece of attunement that you're probably alluding to where you feel it almost in your bones — you feel this sort of emotional connection that goes beyond that. And I think the combination of being aware of how the other person is feeling— so understanding what they're saying, what they're communicating through their words, but also through body language — but then also having a good grasp of how you're feeling in that connection and how connected you feel to that person, how in tune you are to whatever they're describing. I think it's that balance between the two. If you think about meeting someone for the first time and whether it's love at first sight or friendship love at first sight, someone that you really click with, it's hard to describe, but you feel like you're on the same wavelength. And I think that comes naturally for some people and in some situations it can be really practiced.

Is there anything else that people can look out for and be like, "Oh yeah, I'm experiencing attunement right now?" aside from that feeling of "clicking"?

Brodkin: So when we talk about attunement, we talk about a deeper level of connection and that doesn't necessarily have to be in a deep, meaningful relationship. You can think of it as sort of a moment of really making contact with another person, not physical contact, but really being at sync, being emotionally tuned into that other person, as well as yourself. Sometimes it's helpful to think about examples from different walks of life. For example, musicians playing together who are totally on the same wavelength, improvising together. Sometimes they're in sync, but sometimes it's kind of a back and forth conversation. If it's jazz musicians playing and riffing off of each other, or it could be athletes who are on a team, together, who just seem to move in a very coordinated way. So they're very, very aware of each other and on the same wavelengths.           

And often another way that you can recognize attunement is that it often has a certain beauty to it. If you're experiencing it yourself with another person that you can feel good and can feel like, "Wow, I really try to break through there with that other person." I really made contact. We really understood each other.

What are the four components to attunement?

Pallathra: So the four different components of attunement are relaxed awareness, listening, understanding and mutual responsiveness.

We wanted to be able to delineate and make it clear as we're going through each piece, because I know it can be a little bit abstract sometimes to think about, but we really do think of all four components as working dynamically with one another and kind of almost like layers.

The order we've placed them in helps to make it clear. We start off with relaxed awareness, which is really thinking about how to be in touch with your own mental and physical state, being aware of yourself within a situation, how relaxed or how tense you are, but really thinking about that balance. How do I stay relaxed, calm, cool enough in a way that's going to strengthen how mindful and how strong my attention can be in that moment?

These can really help elicit stronger listening and understanding skills and ultimately build onto create what we call mutual responsiveness where you can really meet each other where you are and slow down more.

"Relaxed awareness" is key to experiencing attunement, but we are in pretty anxious times. How can people relax right now?

Brodkin: We suggest doing some simple exercises to try to build up your ability of relaxed awareness. So number one, taking basic good care of yourself, especially during these times. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising if you can. I know these things are easier said than done depending on one's life situation, and the amount of stress you're under and if there's a family member who's sick. Some of these things may not be possible, but to the extent that you can, I think that really helps.

You wrote this before the pandemic and I kind of got a sense while reading the book that attunement is something that can only be achieved in person. And I'm wondering if that's true and if it's possible for people to still feel that sense of attunement over Zoom?

Brodkin: I think the ideal way to be attuned to someone is in person, but I think it is possible through other means like whether on the telephone or through Zoom. I think it's more challenging. I think the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue is very much discussed, and a lot of people are finding it difficult to feel really connected to someone over Zoom or whatever video conferencing technology they're using.

I think perhaps one of the things that makes it difficult is we're not getting the same kind of nonverbal cues that we get in a live interaction. So for example, eye contact is often not what it is in person. If you're looking at the person on your screen, you're not looking into the camera. And so you're not really making eye contact the way you would in person. Sometimes the timing is a little bit off. I think Ashley pointed out in another time that on Zoom, you're often not only looking at the other person, but you're looking at yourself. You can see yourself. So there's this many things about kinds of cues you're getting over Zoom that are different and that make it a different experience.

That being said, I still think if you work on it, I think it's possible to get some level of attunement through Zoom or through the phone. Maybe I'll let Ashley say more.

Pallathra: Yeah, I was going to add that there's definitely a hope. I feel like there are absolutely situations where you can practice and develop strong attunement and connection over video, over the phone. I think what can be helpful is to maybe mitigate some of those difficulties by being really intentional. So when you are doing a video call, if you get self-conscious or you get distracted by your own view, I mean, yourself view or trying to minimize other applications or your email and your texts on your computer so that you can really focus on that person and try to be as in-sync as possible. I think I really like the recommendation of sometimes once in a while going off video and really trying to practice these skills that we describe in the book just over the telephone.

And then again, trying to be cognizant of a short conversation here and there, putting away other chores, different chores or other activities, and really trying to focus in on whoever you're speaking to on what they're saying and the tone of their voice, the cadence and rhythm that they're speaking at. I think all of those things are ways of being mindful and sort of enhancing your sensitivity towards some of these cues that ultimately are good practice to be doing for now until we're able to have access to those in person interactions.

Do you think that experiencing attunement is a problem today? And if so, is it a modern-day problem or do you think that humans have kind of always maybe struggled with attunement and it's been something that they've had to practice with each other?

Pallathra: Good question. I think it's probably always been a challenge for different different cultures and different times. I think it's probably an eternal situation, but I think what's happening now is that we might be having an increase of challenges or distractions that get in the way of our ability to connect. So for example, even on the scale of how communities are built and neighborhoods are built beforehand, depending on where you were, maybe you have lots of neighbors and a few decades ago, you'd walk out your door and you'd always have conversations daily with those people or you'd have conversations on your commute to work. I think the culture of community and the way we've connected with one another has changed through social media, but just the speed of our daily routines and the demands and responsibilities have increased.

So I think some of those things add up, but there are just so many different elements that get in the way of our ability to just take that extra beat and pause and be able to focus more wholly on one another. Ted, what do you think?

Brodkin: I agree. One way we describe it here [is that] it's sort of like an elevated form of connection. So my guess is it's always been a bit of a challenge and people are not perfectly attuned all the time, probably in any historical era, but I think we're a very technologically oriented society.

In many parts of the United States, for example, people tend to be in their homes at night on the internet or watching Netflix or whatever, rather than directly interacting with each other. As someone who has kids, I can say that the way kids are brought up with technology these days, it makes for a different upbringing and childhood experience than I had. There seems to be less going over to each other's houses and playing and things like that, and more play me through screens while you're each in other houses and so on.

And of course, at a certain age, kids have a smartphone if they're privileged enough. So it's just a different way of growing up where technology is ubiquitous. And because of that, because of how much time technology takes up, there's less live interaction I think.

Beyond connecting with someone, what are the benefits of attunement?

Brodkin: Well, a couple of things come to mind. One is that there are increasing rates of loneliness in our society. It's gotten to the level that loneliness is really a public health issue. So I think attunement in and of itself is not a way of fully addressing that issue, I think there's larger social, political, and economic issues behind that, But I think if each of us individually works on this skill I think it can be really helpful at least starting to address that.

And then another issue is that what we argue in the book is that connecting with another person or attuning to another person has multiple benefits. Like Ashley said, in addition to just deep, meaningful relationships, we look at attunement in connection as kind of a power in a sense, a way of being effective and having agency in your interactions with other people. So that could be at work with coworkers, with a boss, that could be in all kinds of settings, that when you're able to connect with someone, to really have that relaxed awareness, really listen to them and understand what they're saying and meet them where they are, that even if you want to assert yourself with them or get some message across or communicate, you're going to be in a better position to do that, and to be heard by that other person.

This ability to connect really makes you more effective in all kinds of areas. Honestly, it can even be self-protective in some ways, like if you want to be safe walking down a city street, being relaxed and aware and having some awareness of your environment and sort of listening to what's going on around you, basically being tuned into your environment can help you to be safe. So there's all kinds of applications for this.

Brodkin and Pallathra's book, "Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections," is to be released on January 26, 2021 from PublicAffairs.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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