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6 Tips for Managing Conflict Over Social Distancing

Here's how to keep your relationship intact when your views clash.

The United States appears to be at a major crossroads right now — or more specifically, a series of crossroads. As most states reopen and attempt to establish something akin to pre-pandemic levels of "normal," numbers of COVID-19 infections are spiking at the same time in many of them.

Moreover, even the most basic of individual safety precautions are being politicized. With a variety of opinions about what activities are safe, and what our responsibilities are to protect each other, conflicts have increased, even among family members living in the same house. Here are some tips to help you cope.

1. Try to summon empathy.

Empathy is crucial in order for any emotionally fraught conversation to go well. And the types of discussions and negotiations that are happening about how to behave in a global pandemic, when many people's daily lives have been disrupted for months, can be emotionally fraught.

Before you get into any conversation, whether it's having to say no to an invitation that you think is too risky or defending yourself against someone who is attacking the way you are doing things, take a pause. Try to summon some empathy for the other person, even if you don't agree with their perspective. Might they have their own considerations that are different than yours? Might they have their own worries that you can't even fathom? Perhaps they are experiencing anxiety or even depression in a way that you can't understand. By trying to empathize with them, you are less likely to go on the defensive and escalate a conflict—and you will be kinder in your dealings with them, no matter your disagreements.

2. Aim for clear, specific communication.

Many people say yes to invitations they have no real intention of following through with attending, and others try to protect other's feelings or protect themselves from awkwardness by not being clear about expectations—only to have things blow up later.

Now is not the time for that. The earlier and more specifically you spell out what your expectations are, like people wearing masks or not sharing food at a gathering you're agreeing to host, or that you will likely end up canceling a long-awaited trip with someone else, the better off you will be. Conflict only arises when people feel duped or are led to believe something that does not end up being true. Set expectations early, and don't lead people on.

3. Remember your values.

With so many different opinions out there, and slippery slopes that make us feel like we "might as well" do something since we've already done something else ("If I'm already going to the grocery store, why not attend that barbecue?") it can be easy to disconnect from our values and the reasoning that made us make our choices in the first place.

Of course, we should all be valuing scientific expertise. But on top of that, it's helpful to remind ourselves why we are making the decisions we are making, and why the sacrifice can be worth it. Let's say you are being more conservative than your neighbors are in terms of playdates with your kids—and your kids are not too happy about it! It's a good time to reestablish the "why" of what your family is doing. Personal responsibility? Concern for the community? Respect for science? Remembering the big picture of "why" can help us stick to our behaviors better, even when they are difficult.

4. Don't overpersonalize.

It is easy to take things personally when tensions are high. But often, that only escalates a conflict. If a friend or family member gets angry at you because you don't want to travel with them, or if a stranger makes a snide comment about your wearing a mask, take a breath.

The societal issues surrounding the attempts to contain this virus have grown to carry much more weight than they should, with people lashing out in all kinds of ways, only heightened by stress. If you can keep yourself from feeling like it's about you, that will allow you to make the choices you need to make and rise above the drama.

5. Think outside the box.

If friends or family are pressuring you to participate in something that you're not comfortable with, try to see if there are other solutions that are safer. Yes, so many of us have had enough of clunky Zoom happy hours at this point. But there are still other options for gathering safely in interesting ways, from playing online versions of classic board games to watching a movie "together."

There may even be ways of gathering "in person" that maximize safety (distanced squirt gun fights from separate yards, anyone?) The more creative solutions you are willing to explore, the more opportunities to connect in a way that works for everyone.

6. Look toward the future.

As uncertain and stressful as the effects of this pandemic have been, the truth is that these disruptions will not last forever. If you catch yourself slipping into despair about how long it will be before you get to do the things that you miss, or the separation from loved ones is taking such an emotional toll that you are about to do something that you don't really think is safe, it may be helpful to remember that this is temporary. And just because we don't know what the immediate future will look like does not mean that it must be bleak. If you can plan something to look forward to that is realistic and safe, all the better.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash