Yes, you may (or may not) miss seeing your colleagues at work. But telecommuting has only exacerbated pre-existing challenges with effective communication among coworkers. Strengthening your “attunement” skills is the key to reducing painful miscommunication.
Workplace communication often feels like you’re in an episode of Peanuts, surrounded by the “wah wah wah” reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s teacher. In meetings, people are talking at one another, determined to communicate their own agenda items. It can feel difficult to find the energy yourself or inspire others to engage in the time and patience necessary to spur collaboration and mutual understanding.
Pre-COVID, weekly meetings in the office could feel like a colossal waste of time, especially when it felt like messages were being missed, almost like darts sailing past one another across the conference table. That feeling of disconnection was only exacerbated by the increase in emails and video conferencing necessary for telecommuting purposes. Sure, it allowed communication to continue at least. But as cameras increasingly turned off, we were left with minimal insight into how our presentations or messages were landing with others. The lack of visual cues also made it easier to disengage during meetings, divide our attention to other tasks, and/or stay silent behind a muted microphone.
Weekdays can feel like we’re being dragged through a miscommunication fog. The good news is, fog is transient, and there are tangible ways you can help start to clear the air faster. It can start with strengthening your attunement skills, or your ability to stay in sync during any interaction. Attunement is the ability to be aware of our own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person. Greater attunement can not only strengthen your connections but also lead to more effective and efficient dialogue. There are a few essential ways to increase your attunement skills and influence others’ ability to tune in to you as well.
Start with one deep breath
At the beginning of your next meeting pause for a moment, tilt your head forward, relax your shoulders down, and take one deep breath through your nose, then out through your mouth. It sounds simple, but just one mindful moment can have cascading effects throughout your day and influence not only your own mood and state of mind but that of others you interact with. Taking that breath pulls you back into the present moment, calms your nervous system, and can enhance your capacity to feel grounded in your next conversation. It can give you the space to remind yourself and reorient towards the goal of this meeting. In a culture that is uncomfortably used to multi-tasking, it can feel like a gift to retain someone’s whole, undivided attention. You’d be surprised how much of a positive feedback loop that can create and influence the entire dynamic of one exchange.
Good listening requires awareness of yourself
It might seem paradoxical, but quality attunement during conversation requires a balance of awareness between the other person as well as yourself. Let’s say your next meeting involves preparing an action plan for a new, demanding project. You’ll use that deep breath as a cue to check in on yourself. As you inhale, quickly scan your body. Do you notice tension in your neck or shoulders? Fists clenched? Knee bouncing? Hand fidgeting with a pen? Maybe you notice these signs in the other person. Each non-verbal clue gives you insight into how you may be emotionally responding to the content of the conversation and it provides you with a chance to regulate yourself enough to stay in the moment of the conversation. If you’re noticing it in the other person, you can also engage in interpersonal regulation. By noting their increased stress, you can avoid responding in ways that would increase their anxiety, but rather respond by reflecting what they’re saying or ask how you can help support them in their endeavors.
Identify what might be getting in the way of understanding
When you’re having trouble understanding someone or getting someone to understand you, there could be a number of different barriers at play. But just like balanced listening, accurate understanding requires delineating how your own perspective might be coloring how you understand one another. Pitfalls to understanding someone could include assumptions about the other person, attributions about them, your own goals or needs from them, or general emotional reactivity. What might it be for you? When any one of these variables is in play, it becomes challenging to stay open to the conversation enough to what they’re actually trying to communicate rather than get preoccupied with your own agenda.
Meet them where they are
In Western culture, there’s a value placed on assertiveness in the workplace. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” they say. While in some contexts that may be true, communication is actually more productive when you meet someone where they are, without requiring much else from them, at least at first. Maybe that means starting with someone else’s agenda items or engaging in small talk before jumping into the thick of it. While these added steps might initially feel like a distraction, they could actually be making the other person feel more comfortable. This willingness to meet them where they are is a surprisingly powerful way to elicit openness, flexibility, and cooperation. By focusing on forming the connection first, it enhances your capacity to understand where your perspectives overlap, which then lays the foundation for greater collaboration, even when you may not agree.
Try to stay “in the flow” without getting too stuck or rigid
Next time you find yourself getting lost in the “miscommunication fog,” ask yourself if you’re actually staying “in the flow” of the conversation. Are you getting fixed on your agenda? Did you prepare responses to potential questions but feel like your talking points aren’t landing well? Maybe you feel like your coworkers are not responding to what you’re actually saying but rather to what they anticipated you to say. Staying “in the flow” is a form of contingent responding, or the capacity to stay flexible enough to stay open and respond to whatever is actually happening, even if it was unexpected or you didn’t feel prepared.
It’s common to feel like communication should be easy, especially with teammates or people you’re working with on common goals. In actuality, the capacity to connect or attune with others is like a muscle. Which means they can be strengthened with practice over time. Think of mutual understanding as an ongoing, dynamic dance — always a work in progress. This level of humility about the fact that people are constantly evolving and changing allows you to enter any interaction with curiosity. This curiosity can then leave the other person feeling seen and heard and more willing to engage collaboratively. We can’t control how much intention others will put into honing these same skills, but your effort and energy towards attuning with others will usually be noticed and may encourage others to do the same. We’ll never be constantly or perfectly attuned to those around us. There will always be breaks in our attunement or responsiveness throughout any interactions. But what is important is that we continue to practice with intention and learn to begin again.
Ashley A. Pallathra, M.A. is the coauthor of a new book, Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections. She is a clinical researcher, a therapist, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.