One consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic is the strain on our personal relationships. And no, I don’t mean the strain that comes from following social distancing guidelines and being unable to see your friends and family in person during this time.
I’m referring to the strain that results from the fact that like it or not, some of our loved ones are NOT following social distancing guidelines, regardless of the news, and despite the pleas, threats, and warnings we may have delivered to them personally.
I’ve seen funny videos and angry tirades alike from the camp of people who identify with the seriousness of the pandemic and desperately want others to stay home. There have been a number of well-intentioned approaches employed to motivate change including:
Appealing to people’s sense of compassion. “Social distancing is about love, guys…please love your neighbors enough to stay home”.
Exercising one’s bargaining power. “We [healthcare workers] came to work for you, so you stay home for us”
Attempts to scare and threaten people into submission. “Seriously, do you guys want to DIE??!?”
Some of this may be partially effective. Many people are following the guidelines. But still, there are many who are not. And the group of dissenters causing the most emotional upheaval are our close family and friends who seem to be going about their daily lives as if there isn’t a highly contagious and potentially lethal viral pandemic at play right now. Repeated failed attempts to get them to stay home leave many of us bewildered, afraid, angry, and feeling less close to them as we once were.
"What's WRONG with them?" we wonder.
"Have they not gotten the message?"
"Are they irreparably selfish?"
"Have they lost their minds??"
Well, there’s only one way to find out what’s going through our loved ones’ minds, and that is through open, honest communication with them about their thoughts and feelings on the matter.
Here’s a crash course in effective communication with the people you care about most, adapted from Stanford psychiatrist Dr. David Burns’ ‘Five Secrets of Effective Communication’ with some personal edits and additions to better help you, my readers, who may be struggling in this area. Note, this method is best used with people you really want to foster a closer relationship with, and probably not the general public. It should be initiated at a time when you are both calm and have the time and space to chat. Also, these steps must be used in combination with each other, and may not happen in this exact order, depending on the flow of the conversation. You must approach the conversation with a sense of genuinely caring for the other person, and not as a manipulative way to change their mind. This method follows the easy-to-remember acronym EAR, which stands for Empathy, Assertiveness, Respect. After laying out the steps below, I will show you how this might play out in a sample conversation that is not much different from ones I’ve had with my own family on the subject.
There are three empathy techniques that you can use together: Inquiry, Thought/Feeling Empathy, and Disarming.
Inquiry: Ask gentle, probing questions to better understand your loved one’s thoughts or feelings on the matter.
I recommend starting here, with an open invitation to talk about the topic. Maybe make a specific, factual observation, like “Dad, I notice you’ve been to the store four times this week despite recommendations for social distancing; can you talk to me about that? Leave the questions open-ended so the person can fully express themselves. Do not make accusations or assumptions. Have no agenda here other than to listen and learn.
Thought and Feeling Empathy: After your loved one has expressed him/herself, you summarize what they just said (Thought Empathy) and acknowledge how he or she is probably feeling, given what he or she just said (Feeling Empathy) .
For example: “So, I’m hearing you say XYZ, is that right? (Here, avoid putting too much of your own spin or interpretation on what they said. Try to use the other person’s own words as much as possible). “I’d probably feel (insert your own feeling words here), if I was in your shoes.”
Disarming: Try to find truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems illogical, distorted, or wrong. You may not agree with everything they’re saying, but you can find some bit of truth or common ground.
“I Feel” Statements: Here you express your own feelings and thoughts using statements that begin with “I feel X, Y, and Z right now in this situation.” Feeling words are any emotion such as afraid, angry, sad, resentful, etc. As you discuss your feelings, avoid blaming your loved one for the way you feel, as this can cause defensiveness and break down communication.
Affirmation: Communicate genuine warmth, caring and respect for your loved one throughout the conversation.
Here’s a sample conversation, so you can see this framework for effective communication in action :
Dr. Jeannie: “Mom, I noticed you’re still going to the hospital for chaplain work despite the recommendations for social distancing, especially for people over 65 .
Mom: “Yes, I understand the recommendations, but I’m wearing a face covering and there are fewer people allowed in the hospital as a precaution, so I feel comfortable. I see my chaplain work as an important service, and I do not want to let the patients or my team down”.
Dr. Jeannie: “I’m hearing you say, that because of the precautions in place you feel comfortable continuing your work at the hospital despite the social distancing recommendations, and you’d like to continue it so you can serve your patients and your team. Is that right?”
Mom: “That’s right”.
Dr. Jeannie: “I can understand that. I think in your shoes, I’d feel a bit reluctant to stop my work at the hospital too. I really admire your commitment to the chaplaincy, and to other people”.
Mom: “Thank you”.
Dr. Jeannie: “To be honest, I’ve been feeling kind of nervous though. I worry about your safety, and that maybe the hospital guidelines, while good, may not be enough to fully protect you. I love you and want to you to stay safe”.
Mom: “I understand your concern and appreciate it. And I love you too. You don’t need to worry. I’m praying everyday and being cautious”.
Dr. Jeannie: I can see the truth in that. It’s true that I don’t have to feel worried since it’s my own thoughts about what might go wrong in the future that are causing my feeling of worry (this is an important concept discussed in previous posts, that our feelings are always caused by our thoughts, not about any particular event or situation). I’ll respect whatever decision you make, but I’d love if together, we could come up with a way for you further reduce your risk and stay as safe as possible”.
Communicating in this way may open the door to problem solving together, which is always more effective than trying to control or coerce someone to do what you want. Be open for compromise, and be ok if your loved one ultimately chooses to not change their behavior. Control what you can (YOUR thoughts, feelings and behaviors), and work on accepting what you cannot. Your relationship with your loved one, and your own personal emotional health can benefit immensely as a result.
You’ve got this!
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