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Jason Jay, Ph.D and Gabriel Grant, Ph.D
Jason Jay, Ph.D and Gabriel Grant, Ph.D
Coronavirus Disease 2019

COVID-19 Conversations

How to make a difference when the stakes are high.

You’re angry. You’ve just taken your one weekly outing to the grocery store when you open Facebook and see a picture of your 70-year-old diabetic mother playing cards with her friends.

Copyright Jay-Grant Publications LLC
Source: Copyright Jay-Grant Publications LLC

Your first instinct? Pick up the phone and confront, shame, yell. This probably won’t work to change her behavior... At least it didn’t the last few times you tried!

Yet we may be headed for periods of going back and forth between freedom and isolation for months to come in order to flatten the curve. Here’s the good news: If we approach these conversations in an authentic and compassionate way, we can strengthen our relationships, reinforce new norms we need to fight the pandemic, and maybe even invent new solutions useful long after this crisis is over.

Notice your "background conversation" and way of being

You discover your brother is about to take his kids, who are still having playdates, over to see your elderly parents who are smokers with heart disease. Before you start typing a snarky text, ask yourself:

  • What am I thinking and feeling about the other person but not saying?
  • What is my way of being as I come into the conversation?

Are you really thinking, “My brother is so selfish. Why do I always have to be the responsible one?” If you’re agitated, anxious, angry, don’t be surprised if your brother feels attacked. If you sound self-righteous and judgmental, it could put him on the defensive. You’ll likely inspire defense of his competence or autonomy in return: “Who are you to tell me what to do?!”

Perhaps your mom may have had some regrets for going to that card game, but when faced with an accusatory tone, she’s more likely to hide those feelings and defend her freedom.

Even if attacking and shaming works and they comply, it often falls short of inspiring lasting behavior change. The other person’s motivation to do the right thing will reach only as far as your oversight. Instead, try these positive steps:

Apologize for any past conversations you didn’t handle well

Clean the slate. “I know the last time we talked, I was agitated and judgmental, and I’m sorry. That’s not my intention today.”

Set an intention for the new conversation

“I want to understand what this challenge has been like for you, and what you’re thinking and feeling about social distancing.” Or “Mom, you know more than anything I want to make sure you’re still with us once this pandemic comes to an end.”

Role model learning and growth

Acknowledge ambiguity between sources of information and changing information over time. “I can understand the CDC may have been afraid consumers would buy critical medical supplies and now they’ve switched to expressing the importance that we all wear masks.” “I can understand why that teenager in Florida was willing to risk his own health and safety. He gave an inspiring apology when he realized how his actions could put more vulnerable people at risk.” “Last month I was asking why this is any different than a normal flu season. What I learned was…”

Learn what action the other person has taken

Ask your mother how she’s approaching the virus, and how she’s responding to calls for protective measures. Assume good intent, and assume she has taken at least some action in the direction of personal and public health. “Tell me, what kind of steps are you taking to protect yourself, your family, and others in your community?” But again, observe your tone. Any sarcasm that bleeds through will put her on the defensive.

Share your own actions despite tradeoffs, and your motivations for making the sacrifice

Do not share how right and righteous you are. Rather, let the other person see that it’s okay to have a mix of thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and still take action.

  • Why it’s hard. “I only leave the house to get groceries. When I do, I wear a mask and it's hot. I haven’t seen any of my friends in weeks. I really miss them. I hope I can handle the isolation.”
  • Why it matters to you. Specific people or stories are important to humanize the crisis. “My co-worker’s son has the virus and is on a ventilator. It’s a good thing we closed down our office last week.”
  • Why it’s not as bad as you thought. Share what you’ve enjoyed in the process. “Our kids taught us a new card game Friday night and we played for hours. Normally, they’d have gone out with friends. It was really nice.”

Learn what the other person values, what they’ve lost, and what they fear losing

“What impact has this had on you already? What are your fears as this moves forward?" Don’t argue against these fears, and don’t try to problem-solve or mitigate at first. Just listen.

At this point, you might feel or hear a shift in the conversation, where the other person is suddenly more open to learning, to accepting the current situation and a change in behavior. If you don’t, however, don’t push too hard. Thank them for taking the time to share their point of view. Have faith that you’ve added a new perspective to their mental conversation that might work in combination with others to influence their behavior.

Cultivate internal motivations

If you do hear a shift, help them go from passenger to driver, where the motivation comes from them. Ask them about specific people they know who are vulnerable to the disease, whom they care about protecting. Ask them about specific people they know in the healthcare system who will get overwhelmed if we don’t flatten the curve, and whom they can play a role in protecting.

Inquire into what could be possible within our new restrictions: What people or activities might they reconnect with during this time? “We’ve just had two video call dinners with old friends whom we love and haven’t spoken to in years. Who knew we could share a dinner together remotely? Would you like to share a meal over video chat?”

Use questions as invitations for collaborative problem solving

Next, the goal is to help them break the tradeoffs between the health, psychological, and economic impacts of responsible behavior. One pitfall is to shift into expert mode and launch into a laundry list of prescriptions. If you do so, you’ll undermine their own self-determination and threaten their autonomy. Try to mentally convert each prescription into a question, instead of a command. Instead of telling your mother, “If you want to play cards, do it online,” try “How can you do the things you enjoy, like playing cards, in a safe way?” Instead of telling your brother to do daily video calls with your parents, ask “What ways could you and your kids stay in touch without putting them at risk?”

Most importantly, be open to learning. Together, you might come up with innovative ways to thrive amid this challenging moment that neither of you could have invented alone. Those solutions may even be useful to others, and prove useful for years to come, as we are seeing with innovations in telework, homeschooling, and distance learning. This is the power of conversation.


Jay, J. & Grant, G. (2017). Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. Oakland, CA: Berrett Koehler

About the Author
Jason Jay, Ph.D and Gabriel Grant, Ph.D

Jason Jay, Ph.D., of MIT Sloan, and Gabriel Grant, at Yale, are the co-authors of the book Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World.

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