I was recently talking with a executive coaching client who came to our conversation stressed out and angry at one of his peers who he felt had undermined his authority. Speaking rapidly, he described the circumstances, distrustful of his peer’s motives, and ready to retaliate. It felt like a torrent of anger coming at me even though it wasn’t directed toward me. As a coach, my goal is to remain centered with a calm nervous system, so I was able to provide a safe space for this leader’s frustration to land without getting caught up in it. I was feeling compassion for his triggered state of mind and body. I let him speak. Within a few minutes, his anger dissipated. Much to my surprise, he apologized for his “rant” (as he called it) and started to think more clearly. I hadn’t spoken a word. His nervous system had relaxed and he was able to think from a place of calm clarity rather than threat.
This is the power of attunement: our ability to see situations with greater clarity and respond with greater wisdom through an open and relaxed nervous system. Our nervous systems respond to one another and practicing being attuned to ourselves and others enables greater collaboration and breakthrough innovation in the midst of complexity.
I sat down with Thomas Hubl, author of “Attuned”, and a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute to learn more about his latest book and how it can serve leaders.
H. Inam: What do you mean by attunement and how does a practice of attunement help us navigate complexity?
T. Hubl: All of the essential relational competencies we need to thrive as human beings have at their core, attunement. We attune to our parents or caregivers (and ideally they attune to us) from the moment we are born. As human beings we are fundamentally wired for attunement, but I don’t know if we’ve truly celebrated this practice or honored it in the depth it deserves. We can think of it as the capacity of our nervous systems to actually feel another person, group, or system – not just think about them – and in turn, receive information that we can feel, emotionally and somatically. This interplay forms the basic building blocks of relating: “I feel you, feeling me.” We can compare this to the process of securing a data connection. When we connect in this way using all our senses, we create functional, transparent communication and feedback loops. When we face complexity, our conditioning to apply Cartesian and materialistic thinking immediately kicks in, but that’s not all that’s needed. I would argue that our hyper individualized approach as leaders has curtailed our abilities to attend to our world’s tremendous problems. By tapping into our innate, embodied forms of intelligence, we see much more potential emerge, as we have learned from Indigenous cultures. While our intellect is always needed, our sensing, spiritual, and emotional competencies working in concert with the intellect have a much greater capacity to access the bountiful reserves of creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and radical disruption we need to tackle complexity.
Inam: In my work with leaders and board members of organizations, I see the struggle we collectively face in navigating disruption. How can your latest book be useful to this audience?
Hubl: I wrote “Attuned” with several audiences in mind, including organizational leaders. I have taught courses and led trainings on trauma-informed leadership. At its root, relational attunement is the foundation for any safe relationship, and therefore at the heart of building resilient organizational systems that can host complexity in a way that’s sustainable. When leaders prioritize attuned relationships in their organizational systems, communication and what I refer to as “data flow” are strengthened immensely, as well as leadership potential, creativity, collaboration, and radical innovation. When we look at what stands in the way of our capacity to attune to one another and successfully navigate complexity, it’s important to understand the role of trauma. “Attuned” examines how trauma on all levels – individual, ancestral, and collective – specifically affects each of us and our organizations. Trauma can lead to reactions that reduce our capacity to successfully navigate complexity. In fact, unrecognized trauma is often a root of overwhelm, which leaders may experience when complexity translates to “loss of control” or discord. Numbness is also an important factor. Traditionally leaders have been taught to suppress their feelings or lack thereof, avoiding transparency and vulnerability. As leaders, we need to first recognize the state we are in before we can support the development of our organizations. Moving from a traumatized perception of a situation, meeting, or relationship to a more attuned perspective doesn’t mean healing and resolving every wound or trauma; the key is to cultivate a mature awareness of trauma and the many possible triggers. I see this as trauma integration. My book offers both practical steps and insights on how this process might unfold in various scenarios.
Inam: Can you share a story or example where attunement made a difference in a workplace context? What is the impact on ourselves and others when we are attuned?
Hubl: In my training programs and courses, I often hear that the practice of transparent communication, which I’ve taught for 20 years and is outlined in the book, has been helpful in creating greater team coherence, fostering open dialogue among professionals, and developing skills for navigating complex challenges before they fester and grow into deeper systemic issues. On a practical level, even a short personal check-in at the start of meetings can help open the space to a more inclusive experience, inviting the entirety of each person to show up and share any brief personal updates. As each person shares, the rest of the team can practice attuning to the speaker’s state at that moment. When teams begin to practice this aspect of transparent communication, they can also incorporate mindfulness practices in a relational context, which improves their inner listening (becoming aware of their own reactions and responses), as well as listening to others. And as they practice the many aspects of transparent communication, attunement becomes naturally “wired” into their nervous systems – it becomes second nature.
Inam: How do we know when we are more or less attuned within ourselves and with each other?
Hubl: When we join a conversation in a stressful state or become triggered during the interaction, the chances are high that we will lose the felt connection to the other person or group. These are the starting points for less relational attunement. We can then notice if we are becoming defensive, distant, aggressive, or overly rational. Triggers and stress reduce our capacity for deep listening. We then end up down a path of more challenging relational issues and collateral damage, with chronically impaired communication and lack of productivity. We experience dysregulation loops. On a larger scale, system-wide communication will continue to weaken, which can lead to many more negative outcomes for everyone. Being more attuned means every time we experience regulation, we are relaxed and open, and we strengthen our learning around listening deeply and sensing the person we are in conversation with. In turn, we receive mental, emotional, physical, and relational information from the interaction. There’s a palpable feeling of connection. As leaders we might notice we are becoming more resilient, empathetic, and collaborative.
Inam: What are one or two simple practices for individual and team attunement that you recommend for busy leaders? How can we make these micro-habits?
Hubl: I recommend trying a simple mindfulness practice I have developed with my groups called “Three Sync” which is detailed in my book. The first step is to become aware of your body, the parts that feel open and flowing, and the parts that feel tense, numb, or absent. Simply notice whatever sensations are present. Next, check the activity of your mind and any emotions that may be subtle or overt. The exercise continues with several steps to soften into these different levels of awareness, which often brings regulation to the body, mind, and emotions. As you feel comfortable, a simple version of this exercise can be practiced briefly at the start of meetings and as preparation for important presentations or events. As you become aware of others in your work environment, do you sense a feeling of stress or agitation? Or is there openness and enthusiasm, maybe even creativity in the room? Is there a collective sense of relaxation and connection, or a quality of distance, tension, or perhaps emptiness? The goal of this practice is to become more aware of whatever is present, just as it is. In practicing the “Three Sync” over time, people have noticed that subtle yet powerful shifts have started to happen, changing, as you call them, their micro-habits so we begin to perceive others more clearly, feeling less triggered or stressed, sensing our own emotions and those of others, and seeing our blind spots in interactions. I would say that this practice works because it’s all about developing awareness, step by step, of ourselves and the relational spaces in which we interact in.
Inam: You share in your book that “inner space is essential to any transformation process”. What do you mean by that?
Hubl: Any practice that leads to greater clarity around our emotions, stress responses, or any numbness or overwhelm, stems from cultivating inner space. When we simply pause before speaking and take a breath – especially when triggered – we are honoring that inner space where we can experience regulation and reflection. Just by slowing down, taking one breath, we can notice a shift in our nervous system’s regulation. Only by allowing this expansion of our inner space can we host greater complexities that we are confronted with on a daily basis, not just in our workplaces, but in the world. Simple mindfulness techniques and other practices such as vagus nerve stimulation can relax our often overtaxed nervous systems. Engaging in a yoga and/or meditation practice will continue to bring about transformation, as long as there’s safety and maturity in the guidance. The work that I do is focused on integration – how we can apply the learnings of our own inner space to the “marketplace”. Over time, many people are surprised to find their well worn conditioning and habits have shifted. And positive feedback loops encourage continued transformation. As my circles of relationships grow, I feel these changes in myself reflected back to me, which leads to even greater inner expansion of “space.”
Inam: A big part of the challenge of disruption is aligning a complex stakeholder ecosystem with multiple (often competing) demands. How can attunement help?
Hubl: Self-regulation, understanding one’s own triggers, and working with stress responses and reactions all lead to becoming more fluid and nimble in the workplace. When multiple and competing demands land on an already overwhelmed nervous system, deeper dysfunction can ensue, such as burnout, which is also referred to as moral injury. The key for leaders is to detect these early symptoms before they become ingrained and instilled. Also recognizing these signs in a conversation, meeting, or project before they become a full-blown crisis is very important. This is also where being trauma-informed plays a role. Once we become more practiced in relational attunement, we begin to sense the dynamics of larger spheres of influence and the complexities within systems. For example, how do we each attune to the phenomenon of what Otto Scharmer (Theory U) refers to as collective absencing? How do I relate to the way that we as individuals, organizations, and entire populations “look away” from complexity and challenges in all domains of life?
Inam: How can leaders get more engaged with your work?
Hubl: My three books – “Healing Collective Trauma”, “The Power of We”(audiobook), and “Attuned” (www.attunedbook.com) each dive deeper into ways of working with relationality and trauma. My website (www.thomashuebl.com) provides access to my courses, training programs, and other aspects of my work including our monthly online forum called the Mystic Cafe. And this fall, starting on September 26, we will launch our annual online collective trauma summit. We’ll engage in conversations with more than 60 diverse, international speakers, and hundreds of thousands of participants typically attend from around the world. It’s a great way to gain a deep multidisciplinary insight into collective trauma and engage within an emergent, innovative network of scientists, authors, artists, thought leaders, and other luminaries.
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