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Walking Together May Resolve Conflicts During the Pandemic

Research suggests that "social walking" can strengthen relationships.

Working from home and restricted from going out, there is now a limited range of safe activities people can do. Many are responding by walking more in this time of COVID-19. A recent internet meme was a picture of a dog with the caption, “I will not go for my 25th walk today.” Walking while social distancing (wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from people you are not living with) is one of only a few relatively safe and doable out-of-the-house activities left to us in these challenging times.

The physical, cognitive, and mental health benefits of regular walking are well-documented, including enhanced cardiovascular health, increased learning and creativity, improved mood and sense of well-being.

Seemingly less well known are some recent findings on the ways "social walking" — walking with another person or people — may improve relationship health and facilitate conflict resolution. A recently published book by neuroscientist Shane O’Mara (In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration) and a 2017 journal article by psychologist C. E. Webb and colleagues (Stepping Forward Together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution?) summarizes much of this research.

In this time of COVID-19, parents, many working on-line or outside the home and most with less or no access to their social support networks, struggle to keep their children fed and safe 24/7, supervise their schoolwork, and engage them in productive activities. Their children are also struggling with changed routines, decreased contact with peers, loss of favorite programs and activities, uncertainties about the future, and anxieties about their safety during the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, strained relationships and conflicts between parents and their children, not to mention parent and parent, are on the rise. Could walking together help? Might something we can do relatively easily and safely, may even be doing already and might be able to do more of, make a positive difference?

Can Walking Together Improve Relationships?

"Social walking" is part of our nature and evolutionary history as evidenced by fossilized footprints, almost 20,000 years old of a group of early humans walking together. It is surmised that this was an extended (over time) interacting group, likely carrying food and water and perhaps carrying basic weapons for protection — including against other small groups of humans walking together.

O'Mara notes that we seemed to be wired to respond to the movements of others with similar movements — or simply similar brain activation patterns even if we do not move ourselves — as if we are "mirroring" each other. Social walking is one way to activate "mirror-neuron networks."

We mimic each other’s pace and gait, swinging our arms and legs in unison. This entrains other physical processes: Our breathing becomes more synchronized and our heart rates increase and decrease (as we walk faster or slower, up-hill or down) at similar times. Walking together also elicits social-cognitive processing to help us understand the other person’s intentions and plans and process their social cues (speech, expression, gesture) in order to anticipate their movements and predict their trajectory.

This kind of interpersonal synchronization is a very basic part of our earliest and most formative attachment experiences: being fed and soothed by caregivers when we were infants, prior to the development of language. This kind of social-cognitive processing is the foundation of good relationships.

O’Mara concludes that going for a walk with someone initiates joint attention and cognitive and behavioral synchronization in ways that are likely to improve relationships. We fall into step with one another, maintain a common goal or behavioral purpose for a time, create a joint experience, and literally "share common ground."

Can Walking Together Facilitate Conflict Resolution?

Webb and co-authors note how much of the colloquial language of conflict resolution is movement-related. When we are in conflict we are at a "standstill" or "impasse," "stalled," "stuck" or "going nowhere," "not budging" or "standing our ground." As a conflict is resolved, we "move on," "get past" or "get over" it, "put it behind us," and even "take steps forward." When we compromise we "meet halfway," "find common ground," "meet in the middle" and "arrive at a solution." Webb and co-authors observe that embodied cognition research suggests physical and external metaphors such as these seem linked to brain-based processes.

Research suggests synchronized movement and joint attention can result in prosocial behavior and improved relationships. Subjects synchronizing movements with those of the experimenter rate the experimenter as more likable. Interaction synchrony results in higher ratings of rapport. Experimentally induced perceived synchrony increases empathy. Prompting joint attention in young children increases their cooperative play. Synchronous movements seem to prompt greater experience of self-other overlap. Self-other overlap is associated with more compassion and concern for others and more helping behaviors and resource sharing.

Conflict resolution specialists suggest a side-by-side cooperative stance (rather than a face-to-face competitive stance) as a conflict resolution, negotiation, and educational problem-solving tactic. Face-to-face negotiation can increase the use of pressure tactics and staring to dominate a conversation and the interpretation of staring as domineering. Walking together actually necessitates a side-by-side cooperative stance.

Webb and co-authors conclude that:

“A convincing body of evidence gathered from diverse psychological literature suggests that walking could be a beneficial tool for conflict resolution.”

“... walking is a relatively pragmatic and feasible activity that partners can engage in together without requiring specific skillsets, training, or fitness.”

“Going for a walk together offers a very practical and cost-effective strategy for negotiators, clinicians, and close social partners.”

A Personal Example and an Invitation

In the middle of writing this post, I took a break and went for a walk with my wife. She expressed frustration with our young-adult daughter now living at home (in this time of COVID-19) and anger at me — for a marriage-long array of problem behaviors similar to those being exhibited by our daughter (like father, like daughter, after all).

As we walked and talked, I tried to put aside my own impulse to respond defensively and angrily and use the active listening, assertive communication and conflict moderation strategies I teach families and couples in my practice. These strategies seemed to help us reconcile and re-connect; we were smiling and playful by the time we got home. I suspect, however, that walking together while we worked things through made all the difference.

I invite you to experiment with walking together as needed when in conflict with someone you are living with during these stressful times. I invite you to experiment with walking together more regularly to improve your relationship more generally and, perhaps, prevent some conflicts from occurring at all.

References

O'Mara, S. (2019). In praise of walking: A new scientific exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.

Webb, C. E., Rossignac-Milon, M. & Higgens, T. E. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72, 374-385.

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