In a time when our country is filled with divisiveness, anger, and despair, how can we reach a point of unity, healing, and hope?
Author Sharon A. Kuhn has a suggestion: develop and increase our emotional intelligence (EQ). In her new book, “Empathy: A Guide to Maximizing Human Potential,” Kuhn gives adults and children tools they need to process their emotions, build their self-esteem, and improve interpersonal communication.
Kuhn is a certified trauma-informed trainer and founder of The Center for Empathy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. For 30 years, she has coached individuals, families, and business teams, helping them feel vital and confident, bringing that healthy energy into their daily lives. Her Unique EQ model is a system of 10 levels for exploring and embracing facets of unique identity, based on interpersonal neurobiology and trauma-informed care.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kuhn and talk about her new book over a cup of hot peppermint tea.
“I want people to be able to understand themselves and others,” she told me. “To have the type of bonding that humanity needs in order to be more and more of what we can be as a human race. I want individuals to know they are valuable, viable, unique, and irreplaceable.”
Kuhn started writing the codex several years ago as she was developing her Unique EQ model and noticing common problems among her clients.
‘I began writing the book between 2009 and 2012,” she said. “I was always looking for a reason why all these people who love each other did not click. If they understood why they’re not clicking, then they could regulate that and click.”
The first step, according to Kuhn, is to realize that each of us has a unique identity. We need to embrace our own identities, and have people mirror acceptance to us in order for us to securely extend that acceptance to the rest of the people in our lives. We all learn, love, and communicate differently. By understanding those differences, we can create and recognize opportunities for affirming and developing joyful identity, talent and intellect. That is the root of empathy and emotional intelligence.
Topics discussed in the book include the biology of love and fear, styles of power, family roles, emotional processing speeds, and intelligence types. Readers will learn to develop a focused self, build healthy bonds with others, and perform the dyadic dance of secure attachment.
“The Unique EQ program helps people bring some of those unconscious things up to such a conscious level that we begin to read other people quickly,” Kuhn said. “Interactions in our daily lives take place so fast; it’s almost like we we’re cars on a super-speed highway. We need to be able to read the nonverbals of other’s hearts and minds quickly—not to manipulate them, but to see them accurately, avoid collisions and have the ability to truly be present with them on the journey.”
The Unique EQ program empowers people in a way that helps them organize their brains for self-esteem.
“The reason it works for everyone—neurotypical or neurodiverse—is because everyone has a vagus nerve,” she said.
Kuhn says what happens biologically is the vagus nerve, which is located in the brain stem and is responsible for sensing physical and emotional safety or harm.
“If that vagus nerve senses that someone cares to be with me and know me and feel me,” Kuhn said, “it’s going to percolate chemicals up to the highest regions of the brain, which is going to turn on that orbitofrontal cortex, the identity center where we house what it is to be me. When that gets the chemicals it needs, that part of the brain is regulating my body from the highest area possible.”
When we feel socially connected to people, the vagus nerve percolates what Kuhn calls a “chemical concoction” that helps the whole brain work together. She noticed it even back when she operated an arts school out of her home and had several autistic children.
“Our youngest autistic students were like, 7, 8, 9 years old; the oldest ones were like 16, 17, 18,” she said. “When we empathetically attune to their states of mind, and we know how to empathize and have compassion and synchronize with them and get in step with them, they are so responsive. When we do the attachment work with an autistic child, what we see is they move out of the more severe spectrums and closer to the Asperger and eventually into the ADHD and then into more of a calm presence.”
In her book, Kuhn frequently refers to people having maps—firing patterns in the brain that create associations. It’s a term used in interpersonal neurobiology, developed by neuropsychologists Dan Siegel and Allan Schore.
It was the discovery of this discipline— interpersonal neurobiology—that led to Kuhn’s aha moments in her own self-esteem recovery and research.
“When I discovered interpersonal neurobiology, I was like, ‘that is what I have to study!’” she said. “It is the interdisciplinary pooling of all of the disciplines into understanding how the human mind and brain are different, but how they work together taking cues from the body’s interpretation of experiences. This physical, emotional and mental interpretation organizes the brain to it’s highest human potential or disorganizes it and blunts development.”
Mapping—also called mirroring or patterning—dictates how external circumstances, primarily our relationships, shape our internal physical and emotional self. These experiences organize—or disorganize—patterns in our brains. This is the wiring of the circuitry of our self-model.
“I have trained therapists who are now using bonding modalities,” Kuhn said. “They attest to seeing how their patients front brain appears to serve them in new and healthy ways. People think, feel and behave better, happier, with more hope and self-esteem. For my clients, I hear repeatedly, ‘I have new maps, I’m acting different. People notice; they tell me I’m different.’”
People connect by forming attachments with one another. They read one another’s intentions, emotional and physical needs. Healthy, secure attachment organizes the brain and triggers our endocrine system, especially when it comes to mothers and children.
“The infant is trying to read mama’s intentions hundreds of times per second,” Kuhn said. “Mother’s need the unconscious and conscious ability to read their infant’s cues. This shared experience triggers the endocrine system in the child to actually fire with the endocrine system of the mother, thereby making the mother the higher brain and regulator of the child.”
Adults develop attachments with each other too. Kuhn says it’s unfortunate this aspect of behavioral therapy is often overlooked.
“The missing piece in our society is we are not understanding how the self is organized into a compassionate and empathetic self, let alone a whole self,” she said. “All of that is going to take place in attachment, and we are still not teaching our mental health experts, nor our young parents, nor our educated people in the colleges about the most important piece of humanity. What I like to say is we have lost, or at least turned a blind eye to the most human virtue of all and that is our attachment capacity.”
She adds that the problem with being in the industrialized world is we think our children need to be given goods, services and education. She argues that instead, what they need is to be given secure attachments and experiences that mirror their unique identity.
“We have ignored and even put down the emotional component of being sensitive,” she said. “When we are emotionally insensitive because we don’t know or respect the importance of emotions, we dampen much of our capacity to connect on deeper levels. And, by the way, emotions are biological, not some ghostly thing, not some warm fuzzy or disturbing sensation without consequence. We are experiencing emotions hundreds of times per second in the body before the brain has any awareness that they’re occurring. Once the brain’s aware that they’re occurring, we naturally try to put language to them to manage them. It’s many, many seconds, minutes, hours or days after we have felt them that we actually have the awareness. I like to say that if we can put a word to our emotion, we bring it out of the unconscious mind and into the conscious mind. Here we can manage it and be present with it. We can’t manage what we’re not aware of, right? Let alone, share with another. It’s at this place of sharing that we build strong enduring bonds. On a societal level we must build understanding of the importance of attachment back into our society.”
Love Bonds and Fear Bonds
Like attachment, humans form bonds with one another. According to Kuhn, those bonds are rooted in either love or fear.
“A fear bond is going to be a codependent bond,” she said. “Someone controls me and I let them, or I control someone and they let me control them. Or we share controls at different times, but it’s not at the same time. It’s often a matter of, I have to let you control me, or you’re going to leave me or be unhappy. Independent is you don’t control me, and I don’t control you and we do our own thing. And we’re pretty independent of one another but we really don’t know how to share controls. We don’t know how to synchronize.”
A love bond, on the other hand, is one of respect and trust.
“If I grew up in love bonds where mama or my main attachments respect me,” Kuhn said, “I would have received support for choices, acceptance for mistakes and opportunities to explore likes and dislikes without being overly managed or controlled. A micro-example for a child might be choosing which shoes they want to wear and feeling enjoyed or admired for the choice. Their self-expression is welcome. They feel their caregivers are happy with them and like to empower them on appropriate levels.
In a love-bond situation, people give each other choices, even small children get choices on some level, and there is a sense of equal respect. Children deserve equal respect although they do not have equal authority.
“What if I’m the authority at work, and one of my direct reports walks in who grew up in a fear bond?” She asks. “They come in seeming a little uneasy. I can tell they need to know if they’re pleasing me or not. They need to feel that I want to empower them. Providing affirmation and feedback is a brain changer for my employee. I’m going to give them controls wherever possible. It’s a brain changer for both of us. We trigger the vagus’ concoction for security, understanding and higher reasoning. Creating shared controls and affirming coworkers convert fear bonds to love bonds. Employees get maps to synchronize with their teams.
“If we’re not maximizing individuality, we’re missing out on so much capacity as a society,” Kuhn said.
About the business
When Sharon Kuhn was a young mother, she operated an art school in her home called Garden of Arts where she taught fine art and music to children.
“I realized how often parents would walk in the house to pick up their child and try to connect. I would see the parent, child or both go into a state of annoyance, tension—more of an upset or a bristled state than one of calm,” she said. “And I’d say to myself, ‘holy cow these parents love their kids; their kids love their parents. Why do they seem to be putting each other on edge so much?’ So I began to look for ways to understand.”
That was when she realized the differences in children’s personalities—their behavior, their identities—that often conflicted with their parents, who also had their own unique personalities, behaviors, and identities.
As her own children grew up, she explored this whole interpersonal neurobiology thing she had discovered earlier, and it eventually became a consulting and coaching business.
At the moment, Kuhn is a one-woman show, but the name The Center for Empathy came about because of a vision she has for not only training trainers, but growing it into a consortium that includes licensed therapists, military veterans, educators, professionals in the fields of criminal justice and juvenile justice, and others who would be using the Unique EQ model in professional mental health/psychiatric therapy, as well as substance abuse.
In the Business World
Kuhn is appreciating opportunities to implement the Unique EQ model for building cultures of inclusion in business organizations. She trains leaders to use simple keys from the science of interpersonal neurobiology and the 10 best-practice levels of the model to maximize human potential and increase their bottom line.
“How you use Unique EQ tools in the office is somewhat different than what how you use it in your home,” she said, “but the human aspects and dynamics are the same. I want to provide as many people as possible the tools and experiences they deserve to feel fabulous about their identity and to maximize their potential. Reaching people in the business world and sending them home stronger than they came to work each day serves our families, communities and global markets at large.”