Attunement in the digital

Where are we with technology, phones, communication, empathy and, something I feel passionately about, attunement?

What got me thinking about this was a recent rare motorway journey, watching how common it is now for families to sit together at service stations with everyone looking at screens or with headphones on. The conversation will almost inevitably continue, but the technology is now somehow 'blended' with the chat.


Let's start with that last word of the first sentence - attunement. I think of attunement as something which requires commitment, empathy and work. We are attempting to really catch what another person is saying, maybe where the dialogue is going, how they feel when they are talking and also maybe how we feel too. All of this requires a lot of effort and work, but generally, it's hugely rewarding for both speaker and listener. The reason is that we want to be heard and noticed. In fact, being noticed is as important to emotional well-being as air is to breathing.

So what is the problem? Well, creeping up on us is the ever more voracious culture of distraction. We now know that the mere presence of a mobile phone on, say, a restaurant table, will make the conversation more shallow because people anticipate that the phone will take precedence. As we see more and more, people prioritise digital over analogue or, put another way, we begin to expect more of technology and less of people. Is this important? Well probably, because as any therapist knows we heal in a relationship, not in isolation.

Family neglect

What I am getting at here is that the more we prioritise digital, for example, the family of four at the motorway station all sitting down and immediately pulling out their phones, the more we are neglecting each other. Social learning theory dictates that we copy each other rather too well. Once a certain 'taboo' is broken, say talking all the way in the supermarket queue, talking whilst the tiller interacts with us, then more people will copy that behaviour. Texting at funerals, or being on the phone in the cinema are prime examples of the creep of the digital into 'sacred spaces'.

The therapy world knows that people are enchanted by the 50 minute hour, where attunement is the priority, but we need to attune outside of the therapy world. Are we losing our way with this? What will happen if social interactions, as now, become an increasing blend of digital and analogue (human to human)? It sort of seems just the way it is now, but is it really ok? If we get a bit bored with a conversation will we immediately 'check out'?

We know that deep 'craft knowledge' gets lost if we don't practice it. How rare it is to see people opening maps now when they explore cities - Google maps will do it for you - hence we lose the ability to navigate by instinct. Will the same happen with connection, attunement and empathy?

What can we do?

I don't have an answer to this, I don't think anyone does, and I think this is partly due to denial. We are all sort of addicted so don't want to expose too much, but that does not mean we should close down the dialogue. We know that creep happens in other allied devices; so, for instance, the proliferation of people now wearing headphones, both large and earbuds. What is the impact of being unaware of your surroundings when out in public space? Also, does the subject seeing people wearing headphones also feel quietly cut off? We cannot function as little islands.

Empathy has allegedly been dropping in the last 40 years, which of course coincides with capitalism and hyper-capitalism. Attunement is the quiet relation to empathy, but might that be dropping too?

To reconnect and attune, therapy could be a welcome return to analogue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, NW11 7PH
Written by Graham Allen, Bsc (Hons) Psychology, Dip Psych, PGCE, Reg MBACP (Accred)
London, NW11 7PH

Graham Allen is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in North London and a Middlesex League Cricketer. A London based Psychotherapist practising in Golders Green and at the British College of Osteopathy and Medicine.

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