I just finished a two day training led by Gabor Mate, a Canadian doctor who spent many years treating addicts and has written and spoken extensively about the connection between our emotions, physiology, relationships, and emotional and physical health. One topic he addressed was the concept of attunement, which he described as being in the same emotional space as another and accepting it. He reported on a study of mothers and infants in which the mother and child were in separate rooms. In the first round, the mother and child interacted via video feed. In the second round, the videotape of the mother was played for the child and very quickly, the child became quite upset. The video mother was not attuned to the child in the moment – the child was aware that the video mother was not in the same emotional space and rejected her.
This made me reflect on my interactions with clients. Sometimes, I feel that I have been able to enter the same emotional space as my client, with a visceral feeling of what he has told me about his life. Sometimes, he will name his feelings, but sometimes it’s just settling into his story, imagining myself in his shoes, and opening myself up to the emotion that arises in me. When I am able to do this, I often have a sense of ease from the client, that he doesn’t have to hold on so tightly because someone else is there sitting in the experience with him. I feel that sense of attunement and I believe he does too.
But sometimes, I am more like the video mother. I am going through the motions of connecting to the client by apparently listening and responding to my client, but something has prevented me from entering her emotional space and accepting it. It may be that I am distracted and not fully listening or engaging – perhaps my mind is on the case I just finished or the one coming up. Or it may be that I have reacted to something the client has said or her demeanor and non-verbal communication and rather than entering her emotional space, I am caught up in my own reactive emotions and feelings. Or it may be that I have made a judgment about something she has said or done or the stance she is taking and I move into trying to convince her she ought to be feeling or thinking differently. When that happens, I am not attuned to the client and she can feel that. She may repeat what she has said or may tell me I don’t get it or may tell me a less complete story by assuming I am not interested. In that case, both my client and I lose the valuable opportunity for understanding her perspective and reduce the chances that I will be able to meaningfully assist her.
So – is it live or is it Memorex? The client can tell. I will be renewing my efforts to be fully present, to be aware of my reactions, and to be open to taking in and accepting my client’s story and emotions.