By Edward S. Brodkin and Ashley A. Pallathra
Nov. 5, 2021
Returning to in-person work can be a tricky process that comes with a complicated mixture of feelings. Whether you’re excited or anxious about reentry, you can expect being around other people to require a lot of energy that you probably haven’t had to expend in a while. Why is in-person interaction such a drain, and how can you muster up the energy to reconnect with your colleagues?
While some of us may be eager to share our experiences with old and new coworkers, others may not be ready to talk about the emotionally searing experiences we’ve been through over the past year and a half. We may even feel like different people than we were in February 2020. At the very least, we’ve probably grown more distant from each other and less accustomed to each other’s rhythms. For those of us who struggle with social anxiety, this can be all the more challenging. Add to that the extra energy needed to get to know new people who were hired during the pandemic whom you’ve only known virtually — or maybe you’re that new person, anxious about how to integrate yourself into your team in real life.
Like the start of the pandemic, the transition back to in-person work will require another period of adjustment. Some people may not be ready for such an abrupt increase in the level of social stimulation that in-person work demands. As a result, don’t be surprised if it’s notably more challenging to keep your attention focused on conversations or tasks that used to be a breeze.
To reboot our in-person working relationships — and maybe make them even better than they were pre-pandemic — it’s helpful to go back to the basics of human connection. In our 2021 book Missing Each Other, we explore one of the most fundamental social skills: attunement, or the ability to be aware of your own state of mind and body while tuning in and connecting to another person. It’s the ability to be “in tune” and “in sync” with both your own feelings and others’ feelings over the course of the sometimes unpredictable twists and turns of an interaction.
This is an endlessly useful skill, both in the workplace and in our more personal relationships. Here’s how we describe it in the book: “Attunement should not be viewed as simply fostering a touchy-feely emotional connection with others, but as a unique power — a power that enables us to perceive communications from others, to connect and have our message understood, and to manage conflict.”
In our own research and clinical experience, we routinely support adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum with forming and maintaining social connections. In doing this work, we’ve seen that focusing on this foundational social skill of attunement is very useful for improving the quality of interactions. And we’ve found that it’s not only useful for people on the spectrum, but for virtually anyone — ourselves included. We propose that attunement can be broken down into four components, each of which can be developed through regular practice.
The following four steps can help you manage the many feelings you may have as you return to in-person work, ranging from excitement to anxiety, and make your communication more effective by increasing your chances of hearing and understanding what others are trying to communicate to you, and vice versa. They can also strengthen your capacity to stay in sync with others, especially in awkward or difficult conversations.
Take time to prepare your nervous system.
Just before your next meeting starts, pause for a moment, tilt your chin down, and feel as if your head is gently suspended from above, which should give you a feeling of gentle lengthening of your neck. Relax your shoulders down. Feel your belly expand with your in-breath and relax back down with your out-breath. Tune in to your environment. These steps can calm your nervous system and make you feel more grounded and centered in the present moment. It’ll help you to give the other person your undivided attention, which is a real gift in our world of constant digital distractions.
We often take these steps ourselves before going into a high-stakes meeting, cultivating a state of “relaxed awareness,” which makes us feel better able to engage with the other person and less caught up in our own worries and tension. Ideally, try to practice these steps on your own on a daily basis. In doing so, even in the course of your regular activities, you’ll be much better able to call upon them in the heat of the moment at work.
Listen to the other person — and yourself.
Pay attention to the other person’s cues. For at least a minute or two, try to think of what they’re saying and expressing as the most important thing to you. As you listen to them, check in with yourself occasionally, to be aware of your own feelings, ranging from emotions to physical sensations. If you sense tension in yourself, go back to the previous step: Let your shoulders drop and relax and take a mindful breath. Then return your attention to the other person.
Listening well can be surprisingly challenging, especially when you’re tense or caught up in your own thoughts and distractions. When you practice these steps regularly, though, you’ll be able to gain clarity and hear what your boss or coworkers are actually saying to you, rather than misunderstanding them due to anxiety about what they might say or preoccupation with the outcomes of the conversation.
Try to consider what the other person’s experience or perspective might be. All of our lived experiences differ in some way, so be tolerant of the possibility that you may have different perspectives. Consider what barriers you may face in trying to understand the other person, like assumptions you may be making about them, what you need from them, or your own reactivity.
On the other hand, maybe your colleagues are silently navigating pandemic-related challenges that are similar to your own struggles. Consider those alternative or invisible explanations when you’re having trouble understanding someone. Cultivating a level of self- and other-focused compassion can aid in navigating conflict or disagreements more gracefully.
Keep expressing interest.
While our culture encourages us to be assertive and push our own agenda, communication is often more effective when we start by meeting the other person where they are mentally and emotionally. You might let the other person start with their agenda items or what’s on their mind. By doing so with openness and interest, you foster a greater connection and make it more likely that they’ll then listen to you, in turn. Try to stay in the flow of the interaction with them for at least for a few minutes, without getting too stuck on your own worries, agenda items, or digital distractions.
If this all seems like a lot to ask of yourself when you first start seeing coworkers again, start by practicing these steps when talking with your family members or trusted friends. With daily practice, you can develop a “muscle memory” for the skills, which makes it much more likely that you’ll implement them in the heat of the moment at work.
Of course it would be ideal if your conversation or meeting partners were also working on these skills. But even if you’re the one who initiates them, your coworkers will probably notice and appreciate your new way of relating to them. Feeling more heard and met by you will have a positive effect and may inspire them to be more open and responsive to you.
Don’t worry about being perfect at this. No one is, and we all have moments of miscommunication and falling out of attunement. But with the skills we’ve described, you’ll know that after a momentary lapse, you can begin again and reconnect. Even just a small improvement in these skills can have a major positive impact on your working relationships.
Edward S. Brodkin, MD, is associate professor of psychiatry with tenure and founder and director of the adult autism spectrum program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His research lab and clinical program at the University of Pennsylvania focus on social neuroscience and the autism spectrum in adults. He is coauthor of the book Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections.
Ashley A. Pallathra, MA, is a clinical researcher, therapist, and PhD candidate in clinical psychology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Her current research and clinical work center around strengthening social competence and building resilience in children and adolescents from diverse community settings. She is coauthor of the book Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections.
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