Being attuned to others, being on another’s wavelength, is a vital but much neglected skill. “You’re not hearing me”, is a frequently stated complaint by people who feel others aren’t understanding or appreciating their standpoint. Thus do conflicts occur. Empathy too, the ability to see a matter from another’s perspective is rightly emphasised in leadership development but it is very common to find this skill to be lacking in emerging leaders. It is often also missing in couples who don’t get along together. To have empathy, we first need to tune into another and have clear perception.

Attunement to another involves being attuned to ourselves. That’s where we learn it, as too from a parent who pays us attention, listens to us, and gets us. If we didn’t get that attunement from a parent, we can still learn it later ourselves. Here’s where mindfulness can give us the ability to learn to tune into ourselves, on a regular basis if you have a mindfulness practice. Simply by attending to the flow of the mind while keeping an open, non-judgemental perspective, you can notice, monitor and modify your own state, your feelings and your thoughts. You can get finely attuned to your different moods and to how your body feels, and how you react to different situations. You can get to know yourself very well this way. This sensitivity to yourself can then be extended to others.

Knowing ourselves from the inside

This is the process of interoception, the skill of perceiving inside ourselves and being able to sense what is going on. A mental body scan does this quite well, and with practice you can do it fairly quickly. We use the mind to scan, so to speak, through the body, tuning into sensations and feelings, pains and discomforts, un-accessed emotions, tension, energy, unmet need, longings, desires. Then you can use the practice of mindfulness to observe what comes up and, with practice, you can yet stay detached from it. Then you can learn also how to manage it differently through this state of being the non-judgemental accepting witness of what occurs rather than thinking that this is you. This then also applies to your attunement to others.

As we learn to be better attuned to ourselves and understand what that means, we are more alert and aware with others too. In fact through our attunement to ourselves we can learn to recognise senses and feelings that can also tell us about another and their needs, and to discriminate between what is our stuff and what might be another’s. This growing knowledge helps us with empathy towards others and our ability to support them. Then of course we need to recognise when we are perceiving others through our own coloured glasses of our stuff, and when we not, and when we can set our own glasses on one side and truly be there for another, what in Gestalt Therapy is called “the rule of époché”, or bracketing off our own stuff. To make this distinction is very important. Self awareness is key here.

People who work with others, like therapists or coaches, often need to do this work on themselves if they are to be more effective in helping others. This also applies to leaders, although relatively few take this journey to any serious degree. More’s the pity since the world would be a better place if they did.