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Missing Each Other
How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections
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The ability to connect with another person's physical and emotional state is one of the most elusive interpersonal skills to develop, but this book shows you just how approachable it can be.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS
TO ILLUSTRATE THE CONCEPTS we discuss in this book, we use stories from our own lives and from our own clinical practices. To protect the confidentiality of the individuals whose stories we use, we do not use real names or any other identifying information, and many of the stories are based on composites of more than one person.
The information in this book is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized mental health care from a clinician familiar with your specific circumstances. Accordingly, the information in this book should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health condition, which should be undertaken only by your own health care provider.
This book contains exercises that involve physical activity. You should consult with your physician or primary health care provider before undertaking any exercise program, including the exercises described in this book. Neither the authors nor the publisher will be liable for any injuries or damages resulting from the application of any of the ideas, information, or exercises contained in this book.
A note about COVID-19: Some of the exercises provided in this book involve proximity and/or close contact with a partner. You should follow public health guidelines regarding the necessity for physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you should not carry out the exercises involving proximity or close contact if they violate prevailing public health recommendations or the recommendations of your health care provider.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
—E. M. FORSTER, Howards End1
MANY STORIES HAVE BEEN TOLD about extraordinary feats accomplished by advanced practitioners of meditation or yoga, including the seemingly magical control they have of their own bodies and physiology. If anyone should have such powers, it would be His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of the great meditation masters of our time. Once, at a public talk, a close friend of the Dalai Lama’s, Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University, was asked very directly about this. Had Professor Thurman ever seen the Dalai Lama perform a miracle or do something magical? He didn’t know how to answer. He’d seen some remarkable things happen around the Dalai Lama, but perhaps His Holiness wouldn’t approve if Professor Thurman seemed to exaggerate his abilities or proselytize. As he was mulling over how to reply, Thurman’s wife, Nena, also a close friend of His Holiness, spoke up and said that she’d seen him perform plenty of miracles. What she meant, she explained, was his ability to give his full attention and focus to each and every person he met. The gentleman, who was hoping to hear a story of some dramatic, unexplained miracle, seemed disappointed with the answer. But Nena insisted that the way His Holiness connects with people is miraculous.2
The Dalai Lama, Buddhist monk and spiritual leader to millions, is understandably a very busy person who meets with countless people at various events virtually every day. Nevertheless, many observers have described that, in every single social interaction, he engages with people by giving them his complete and total attention. No exceptions. Entering into conversation with him is a unique experience in which you feel completely seen and heard, without distraction. Professor Thurman described this by saying, “normally, when we talk to each other, we reach out to the person over there and communicate with them. With the Dalai Lama, there isn’t space between us. He is over here, with us.”3 At first, it might seem inconceivable that someone’s style of communication could be considered almost supernatural, a miracle, even if that person is the Dalai Lama. How could the ability to connect with another person ever seem outside the realm of ordinary human potential? His abilities seem virtually miraculous because so few people, despite their potential, are able to connect and communicate with people in quite that way.
This kind of connection may seem light years away from the real interactions we observe in our own lives, where we often don’t pay more than cursory attention to each other. Most people move through their days chronically stressed and preoccupied with their own thoughts and worries, making them unable to really listen to others for long. With “busy” being the increasingly popular answer to questions about how someone is doing, we often seem to miss each other, like two ships passing in the night—almost touching, but not quite making contact. Even when we do meet, we somehow misunderstand each other, or we talk past one another. Genuine, lasting connections feel elusive. In an era in which technology progressively takes up time and space that had previously been devoted to live, in-person interactions, attunement—the ability to be aware of our own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person—is perhaps the most needed, and most neglected, human capacity.
Take a moment to consider your own life and your daily interactions with others. How many work meetings have you attended that seemed to be a waste of time because people were distracted by their devices? Everyone seemed to talk over each other or past each other, and responded not to what the other person said but to what was in their own head. It was as if each participant occupied their own world and remained stuck in their own perspective. How often have you noticed yourself getting lost in those situations, unable to identify how you were feeling or how you were coming across to others? At home, how many times has your child or partner felt lectured at instead of listened to? Other times, maybe it was you who was left feeling disappointed, hurt, or alone, because even those closest to you—friends, family members, partners, children—will not, or cannot, seem to fully tune in to you, listen and understand you, respond to you. How much have you wished for someone who could?
Then there are the constant pings of our smartphones and tablets that have conditioned us to attend to texts, emails, social media alerts, and other notifications that seamlessly draw our attention away from each other. Often it’s not until we offend our partners or friends by excessively looking at our phones when talking with them that we realize our connection was even broken. Have you ever realized that you missed everything your friend just said to you because you were lost in your own thoughts and were unable to maintain focus on even a brief conversation? You leave the interaction feeling disheartened and guilty, and you promise yourself that you’ll do better next time. But when the next time comes, phones get pulled out, our attention fails, and we become distracted yet again.…
Maybe that’s why encountering someone like the Dalai Lama can be such an emotionally powerful experience. To be seen with consistent interest and attentiveness by another person is an incredibly stimulating and empowering experience that energizes you and inspires you to invest back into the interaction, and to attend to that other person. That positive feedback loop then provides the same feeling back to the person you’re interacting with. Even in brief interactions, consistent attunement to one another can leave lasting effects on any relationship. While achieving the power to connect with people like the Dalai Lama may seem beyond reach, there are concrete, progressive strategies that any one of us can implement to attain more of this ability to tune in and engage people with confidence and ease. In this book, we invite you to explore with us the science and art of attunement, and to try some strategies and exercises for developing this ability in yourself.
Our passion for this topic emerged through our work together at the University of Pennsylvania in autism research, which made us aware of the crucial role attunement plays, not just in the lives of people on the autism spectrum, but in all our lives. It also made us aware that the study of attunement, in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience is still in its infancy. It has, however, started to grow rapidly in recent years. Attunement is something we can feel subjectively in an interaction, but it can be difficult to put our finger on exactly how it works, and how we can get better at it. This realization set us on a journey to delve into the existing research and develop a framework for understanding how attunement works, a framework that is understandable and accessible to people outside of the sciences and mental health professions. In addition to understanding attunement better, we wanted to create something practical—a method for developing attunement that anyone could use. By drawing on our combined years of research and training in fields relevant to attunement—including social neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, music, mindfulness, Tai Chi, and other martial arts/movement disciplines—we created a set of progressive exercises for developing and practicing the fundamental skills of attunement.
IN THE FALL OF 2014 at the University of Pennsylvania, we set out to explore the questions of how we connect, or fail to connect, with each other. We began from a very different place than the remarkable abilities of the Dalai Lama. We were trying to help people who were facing significant challenges in connecting with others—adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The autism spectrum is part of the neurodiversity of humanity. Neurodiversity is the wide variability among human beings in brain function and behavior. Autistic individuals may be quite gifted and talented in certain areas, yet autism is largely defined by difficulties with social communication and relationships. With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, we started to develop a novel program to provide autistic adults with support for their social functioning. Many people on the autism spectrum feel lonely and desire connections with others, but they don’t know quite how to make them—especially with neurotypical people (people who are not on the spectrum)—and they don’t completely understand what makes it so difficult to maintain them. As of 2014, very little work had been done in developing and testing supports and services for autistic adults.
Our challenging task, in this research study, was to determine at which points—in the intricate, complex dance of social interactions and relationships—these adults were having difficulties. We also strove to develop strategies that would help these individuals become more comfortable and capable in interacting with others. We knew that intellectual disability wasn’t what was getting in the way, because the group enrolled in our study was not intellectually disabled. Many were college students, college graduates, or working professionals. Our study participants generally had difficulty “reading” social situations or navigating their way through them. For example, they might have difficulty initiating conversations or try to enter a conversation that other people were having at an awkward moment. Or they might keep talking about a topic at great length without realizing that they had monopolized the conversation and had lost the interest of the other person. While any of us might do these things from time to time, in many autistic adults, these are consistent patterns.
What makes it difficult for individuals on the spectrum to navigate typical social interactions? We already had some ideas, based on our clinical experience and previous research. We were familiar with the concept of “social cognition” (understanding other people and interactions), which has been studied at length in psychological science and has been identified as a challenging area for many autistic adults. However, as we worked with the participants in our study, we began to think more and more about an ability that includes social cognition and social skills but goes well beyond each. It’s the same ability that the Dalai Lama has developed to such a remarkable degree—an ability to “make contact” with others, not only at a thought level but also at a gut and emotional level, and to stay “in tune” and “in sync” with both the feelings of others and one’s own feelings, not just in a single moment of understanding or empathy but over time during the unpredictable twists and turns of an interaction. That ability—what we will call social-emotional attunement, or attunement for short—is what makes the other person feel that you have genuinely connected with them. Attunement is an elusive concept that has not gotten as much attention from researchers as it deserves, although substantial research has been done on the role of attunement in mother-infant interactions.
In more recent years, neuroscience research into “mirror neurons” has begun to suggest possible brain mechanisms of attunement.4 Moreover, the idea of misattunement between people on the spectrum and neurotypical people is just beginning to gain traction in autism research.5 For example, attuning with others can be challenging for autistic individuals, due to their difficulties with processing social cues or responding in ways that are considered typical by the wider society. However, it can be equally difficult for neurotypical individuals to understand and connect with people who they are unfamiliar with (e.g., people on the spectrum, strangers, bosses, and so forth), due to anxiety, fear, discomfort, or a host of other emotions, preconceived notions, and biases.
The more we considered this phenomenon of attunement, the more we began to realize that difficulties with attunement crossed all populations. We began to observe similar challenges in the lives of our colleagues, our friends, and the people we interacted with on a daily basis—as well as in ourselves. Realizing the near universality of this issue, we were inspired to explore attunement further, investigating what makes it work, how it can go awry, and how it can be developed. So we began to put together a framework that could help anyone become better attuned to another person.
WE ALL SHARE A fundamental need for human connection—something that seems increasingly neglected in our culture. In this book we emphasize and examine the research on quality connection and describe realistic ways that every one of us can work on improving the connections in our lives. We examine person-to-person connection, clearly defining attunement and exploring its components in depth, and we lay out a step-by-step, practical approach for developing it. When we refer to “connection,” we are referring to a deep tuning in to each other. This tuning in is not so dependent on the amount of time you spend with someone, but has more to do with the quality of that interaction—the degree to which you and another person hear and understand each other, and the skill with which you respond to each other. The quality of the connection is determined not only by the words you say to each other but also by the skill and timing of your nonverbal communication: through the use of eye contact, facial expression, and body language.
In an age where we can use technology to communicate with anyone anywhere at the drop of a hat, the ability to remain attuned is a capacity we need more than ever before. Even though many things that humans can do are being replaced by computers and robots, true attunement is unique to living beings, particularly us humans, and is invaluable. The greater our ability to tune in and connect with others, the more effective and comfortable we will be in our personal and family relationships, and in our work. If many of us work on developing our powers of attunement, there is the potential for ripple effects that could positively impact the larger social, political, and environmental crises of our time, which are prolonged and exacerbated by poor communication across communities and governing bodies.
Developing attunement is a powerful way to improve many areas of our lives. For example, true friends are able to tune in to one another and develop mutual understanding and support. The essence of every romantic relationship is born from a feeling of connection or attunement at an intimate level. In parenting and child-rearing, secure attachment arises from a child’s ability to feel, at a fundamental level, that their parents love and care about them. A child needs to trust that their parents can reliably tune in to them and can actively try to understand them. When children have this foundational feeling toward their caregivers, they become increasingly resilient and are able to thrive in a greater variety of environments. Professionally, the key to successful leadership and team building, as well as favorably engaging clients, is having the ability to connect in some way with others. If there is that feeling of connection, then motivation, communication, and cooperation within the team grows. Attunement improves communication within teams and with clients. It helps in resolving conflict and working toward a shared set of goals. In almost every workplace or profession, there are moments in which the stakes are high, anxiety peaks, and nerves are frayed, often resulting in reactive behavior that breaks communication between peers. Developing a new set of habits and skills that strengthen the capacity for attunement in your daily life allows for easier access to these skills in high stress moments, like those found at work. With regular practice, those fundamental skills of attunement become easier to tap into and use in a pinch. They empower you to focus on whomever you’re working with, connect with them on a human level, and develop mutual understanding.
Missing Each Other makes an argument for reinvesting in ourselves and each other by improving the quality of our daily interactions. This book defines and explores details of what we call the four components of attunement: relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness. Our explorations will include both the mental and physical aspects of each component, relevant research, exercises to help you develop that component, and stories that bring to life the inner workings of attunement. All four components work together, simultaneously, and they are so closely related that there is some overlap among them. Ultimately, the goal is to put all four components into action at the same time. It will take practice, but we’ll show you how.
Now, about the exercises. We’ll start with still meditation and mindful awareness exercises, then progress to solo movement exercises, and lastly build to partner-based movement and conversation exercises. Each exercise includes both physical and mental components. Attunement has some overlap with the concept of mindfulness—something you’re probably familiar with through its wide dissemination within popular culture in recent years. The first component of attunement, relaxed awareness, is a type of mindfulness in which you are calmly aware of yourself and the person you are interacting with. But the concept of attunement goes beyond mindfulness because attunement also involves incorporating mindful strategies into dynamic social interactions. The methods for developing attunement that we present will be most helpful if you commit some time and effort to the regular practice of at least some of the exercises. The exercises are simple enough that you can do them when you don’t have much time on your hands or when you just want to reorient yourself to the components of attunement.
A major, recurring theme of Missing Each Other is balance. Developing attunement involves balancing the physical and mental aspects of the exercises, balancing physical alignment and muscle relaxation, balancing awareness and calmness, and balancing awareness of oneself and awareness of the other person.6 But the goal is not to reach a static, motionless balance point that one could call a final state of perfect attunement. Our interactions with others are always evolving and changing, so attunement is a dynamic process that ebbs and flows around a balance point. Attunement is always a work in progress. Much like a dance, attunement involves alternating between leading and following, connecting and taking some space.
Developing attunement ultimately involves developing attention and timing, developing the ability to be in sync and connected during the twists and turns of a changing interaction, and developing the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately according to what the particular moment of the interaction calls for. Whether it is two people having a conversation in which they feel mutually heard and understood, two dancers moving smoothly together, two basketball teammates moving down the court in a well-coordinated fast break, or two musicians improvising together, the elements of relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness are involved. Attunement is a kind of power worth developing, because it can widen and deepen our perceptions of ourselves and other people, which in turn can lead to remarkable improvements in our effectiveness, in our ability to manage conflict, and in the quality of our interactions in many different contexts and many types of relationships.
Our work as researchers and clinicians is in the tradition of scientist-practitioners, and we bring this balanced approach to the way that we have structured the book. Missing Each Other is devoted not only to developing a more detailed understanding of the elements of attunement but also to showing you how to develop these elements and how to put them into practice in your day-to-day life. By the end, this book should bring you greater awareness of your own connections with others and the knowledge and skills necessary to grow, deepen, and strengthen these bonds further. Let’s get started.
WHAT IS ATTUNEMENT, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.”
—HARRIET GOLDHOR LERNER1
WE ARE WIRED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION. Our drive to connect with others is evident from the earliest moments of our lives. Infants recognize and demonstrate a preference for human faces, suggesting that we have an innate interest and curiosity about others.2 As infants continue to develop in a safe, nurturing environment, they develop the ability to form emotional and physical attachment bonds to their parent or caregiver, something that provides them with the sense of security necessary to explore, take chances, and develop their own sense of self. Over time, as children begin to acquire language, they quickly learn the monumental value of connecting their minds with others through verbal and nonverbal communication. Kids learn, over time, to engage in complex interactions that allow for the exchange of ideas or experiences. We have an intrinsic interest in and capability of learning about someone else’s experience, and an interest in determining how their experience may connect to ours.3 There are, without a doubt, individual differences in how much motivation we have to engage with others, or in how interesting and pleasurable social interactions are to us. Rarely do we want to be connected to someone all the time. But overall, whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, you are generally compelled to generate some degree of a physical, emotional, and/or intellectual connection to those around you.
We know that humans have an inherent need for social bonds, and we also know what happens when we’re deprived of them, especially early in life. Early deprivation of social contact (e.g., being embraced, rocked, hugged) has been linked to alterations in brain development and consequent disruption of a child’s ability to develop positive attachments to others. Over time, this early lack of social engagement with caretakers can lead to trouble regulating emotions, low self-esteem, behavioral issues, and impaired cognitive development. Social isolation is costly to our well-being in adulthood as well, and it has negative effects on overall health and longevity that are comparable to the negative effects of other well established risk factors, such as obesity.4 Having a low number of social bonds is also associated with declines in physical and mental health outcomes.5 The poorer health you have, the less likely you are to socially engage with others, perpetuating the cycle.
Evolutionary psychologists tell us that there were adaptive reasons for humans’ tendency to connect with each other, that social cooperation was driven by our need to survive and reproduce. We need others in order to gain information and resources, to protect ourselves and our offspring from danger, and to find help in solving problems. So you might think that we need connection purely for utilitarian reasons, such as survival and reproduction. But selfless acts of kindness for strangers provide examples of how social connection is not necessarily motivated by kinship and functionality. From childhood, we learn to identify shared goals with others and make connections based on our similarities. As we get older, we grow the capacity to accept and love one another despite stark differences. These experiences serve as reminders of how powerful and nearly universal the desires are to connect with each other and develop deep, emotional bonds, both platonic and romantic. That fundamental skill of connecting to each other is attunement.
WHAT ATTUNEMENT LOOKS AND FEELS LIKE
Attunement is the ability to be aware of your own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person. It is the fundamental social skill and the foundation of human relationships, without which we are isolated from others and cut off from our own inner life. Attunement relies not only on spoken language, but also on the communication of feeling states through unspoken signals that we exchange, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Reciprocal communication is a dance between attention and gesture that flows most effectively when people are in tune with one another.6 The nonverbal components of communication start to develop almost as soon as we are born, and they are nurtured in our interactions with our parents or caregivers. We continue to develop them over the course of a lifetime. In relationships and interactions of any depth, attunement plays an important role.
Attunement helps us to feel aware of ourselves and connected to another person, and it helps that other person feel just as connected to us. Attunement is a whole-body experience, both kinesthetic and emotional, in which you can sense someone’s rhythm, affect, and experience by essentially feeling like you’re in their skin. Attunement goes one step past empathy by creating a two-person experience of feeling connected, which is accomplished through reciprocal, dynamic responding to one another’s emotional states, needs, and desires.7
- “An absolutely compelling perspective on the science and practice of authentic human connection. If you want to know how and why to get in sync with other people, this book is for you. I absolutely loved it!”—Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., author of Grit; Founder and CEO, Character Lab; Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor, University of Pennsylvania
- “In a world dominated by divided attention, the people who stand out are the ones who make us feel like the only person in the room. This book is a thoughtful exploration of how we can strengthen our connections by becoming more attuned to those around us.”—Adam Grant, Ph.D., New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and Give and Take, and host of the chart-topping TED podcast WorkLife
- “If you want more love and meaning in your life, you must read this book. Brodkin and Pallathra give expression to an inchoate yearning more and more people feel today, yet do not know how to fulfill—how to make true contact, with another, which the authors call ‘attunement.’ Combining rigorous scholarship with heart and soul, Brodkin and Pallathra break down the four different pillars that make up a meaningful connection, and show readers, through concrete exercises, how to build those pillars so that we each may have richer, deeper relationships with loved ones, friends, and colleagues.”—Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning
- “If ever there was a book written for our time, Missing Each Other is it. Paradoxically, all the modern communications technology that has proven so important in the midst of a global pandemic has only reminded us how much we actually miss each other. This book will help us learn those lessons as we escape from our walls and screens.”—Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., author of Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die; David and Lyn Silfen University Professor, University of Pennsylvania
- "In Missing Each Other, the authors, Edward Brodkin and Ashley Pallathra, share how attunement to ourselves and others can have a positive impact on our lives. How often have you walked away from a conversation and wondered how it turned into a disagreement? This book shares insight and activities to help understand each of our parts in creating communications and connections. Especially useful in the time of technology and social distancing."—Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Change
- “They write with a passionate, encouraging, come-and-join-me quality, showing how we can find attunement through the exercise of its basic components…A dynamic approach to focusing, connecting, and developing mutual understanding.”—Kirkus
- "Brodkin and Pallathra share helpful advice for fostering meaningful connections in their excellent debut…This refreshing take, devoid of trendy self-care speak, acts as a soothing salve for those anxious in social situations. The result is a highly informed guide on how to be fully present and open with others."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jan 26, 2021
- Page Count
- 256 pages