Emotional Attunement in Teaching and Therapy: Some Things Do Not Change

As the fields of education and psychotherapy continue to evolve toward an increasing reliance on “evidence based practices,” it is of equal or even greater importance not to forget that the preponderance of the professional literature points to the importance of emotional attunement in teaching or in whatever form of therapy is being practiced. In our fast paced world, it may be easy to assign a lesser value to certain relationship variables that are prerequisites for making therapy work. Having a good enough relationship with students and patients provides the leverage that moves them to engage collaboratively on the road to accomplishing their goals.

Creating a relationship that will support teaching or therapy in good times and bad begins with a recognition of the immense power of induced emotion. That is, emotions are constantly being exchanged between therapists and teachers and their patients and students often nonverbally and without being noticed unless one is primed to recognize them. Just as we unknwoleingly catch colds, we also catch emotions. Strong emotions, positive or negative, need to be experienced, tolerated, and washed clean of any toxic elements that may derail the therapeutic or educational process. In a previous paper, I cited a quote from Sheldon Kopp who referenced a biblical saying: “If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching down to him a helping hand. You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mud and filth. You must not hesitate to get yourself dirty.” This is not an easy task. It means using the emotions being communicated in a personal way without personalizing them. When all feelings are tolerated and can be mirrored, then patients and students feel they are with someone who is like them. As a result, they are more likely to like you, and this makes the teaching or therapy “go.” Resisting the urge to take actions to deflect emotions that feel intolerable must be resisted because this amounts to rejecting the student or patient.

It is only through this process of embracing the emotional contagion that is part and parcel of every human relationship that we can return to those with whom we are engaged in an educational or therapeutic process an emotional communication that will move students or patients progressively forward.



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