7 Ways to foster a healthy conversation in a Covid world: Tips for families

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, many individuals and families find themselves struggling through difficult conversations, stressful times, and strained mental health.

In many communities, topics like Covid-19 vaccines, lockdowns, masks, and how to best navigate the current situation have become polarized and heated. The most important thing to remember is that we all have the same goal: To remain healthy and move forward with daily life. 

In the meantime, it is important to maintain open communication with our loved ones, even when the conversation gets difficult. Here are few tips to help foster healthy conversations in a Covid World:

1. Listen first

Being heard and understood are deep human needs especially in times of distress. The Covid-19 virus has caused a lot of fear and anxiety, and these emotions impact the nature of conversations we have with our loved ones.

When people feel fearful and anxious, they act from the emotional or instinctual parts of the brain. This is normal and healthy, but, if you are approaching tough conversations with a loved one, listening to their point of view will validate them, calm their fears and anxieties, and allow them to converse from the more rational part of their brain.

A few things to try:

  • When your loved one shares something with you, try reflecting it back to them in your own words before responding with your own thoughts 
  • If you’re the natural conversation starter, try letting your loved one take the lead
  • Ask open-ended questions and listen to how your loved one responds
  • If you are a parent, role model good listening skills by maintaining eye contact, removing distractions, and asking questions that clarify rather than invalidate what your child is saying

2. Location matters

We’ve all spent a lot of time in our homes with the same people during the course the Covid-19 crisis. If conversations have become stale or emotionally charged at home, consider meeting your loved somewhere else for a change of scenery.

A few things to try:

  • Walk and talk! Research shows that walking can have enormous positive effects on conversation including stimulating cognitive process, creative thinking and fostering trust and cooperation
  • Try a greenspace. The outdoors is neutral territory for necessary but awkward conversations
  • Change the scene. If you are having a challenging time communicating with your loved one in your usual locations, suggest meeting somewhere different like a coffee shop or a shopping center

3. Don’t skip the small talk

Great conversations start with a great mindset. No one likes to feel surprised by a sudden launch into an unexpected heavy conversation. While it’s important not to avoid delicate subjects during difficult times, it’s also important to approach them with ease. Small talk fosters a connection between people and puts all parties into a more positive mindset. 

A few things to try:

  • Ask everyday, common questions like, ‘How did your presentation go today?’ or ‘Did you get a chance to finish that book I lent you?’
  • Strengthen your connection by talking about things you have in common such as hobbies, the weather, the news, or other common interests

4. Validate beliefs and experiences

Personal beliefs and experiences are an important part of a person’s identity and they need to be acknowledged and respected as part of a healthy conversation. In the time of Covid-19, many people have had direct experiences with an infected person, or they may simply believe something like ‘I trust my health authorities’. These things obviously impact their perception of the situation and how it should be navigated. When approaching an awkward conversation, therefore, it’s important to show that you have heard and understood their point of view.

A few things to try:

  • Ask neutral questions that further your understanding of their experiences and beliefs taking care not to invalidate them. i.e. What happened after her positive test? or Can you tell me more about why you think that?
  • Assure your loved ones with compassionate statements showing that you have heard and understood them. i.e. That must’ve been scary. or I understand why you see it that way.
  • Avoid telling someone they are ‘wrong’. Instead, ask for clarification. i.e. When you say a vaccine is “safe,” what do you mean by that?”

5. Communicate information, not conclusions

If you have taken care to understand your loved one’s point of view and wish to share your thoughts on a subject, it’s best to do so with simple information. People respond better when they are allowed to draw their own conclusions. That said, if you would like to provide information about a topic, choose sources your loved one trusts and present it in a neutral tone.

A few things to try:

  • Instead of saying, ‘Early treatment is the best way to end the Covid-19 crisis’, try saying ‘Did you see the ___ journal published a review where 90% of studies showed a positive benefit for early treatment?’
  • Instead of saying, ‘The data is misleading’, try ‘The Centers for Disease Control has different criteria for diagnosing Covid-19 depending on whether you’re vaccinated or not.’

6. Discuss ideas not personalities

Close relationships come from many years of shared joys, experiences, and conflicts. Over that period of time, we learn a lot about each other’s personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses. When approaching an awkward family conversation, however, it’s important to keep the conversation focused on ideas and not personality traits. 

A few things to try:

  • Avoid making comments about your loved one’s personality characteristics. i.e. You are so gullible when it comes to these things. 
  • If your loved one insults or questions your character, remind them that it is not helpful. And return the conversation to the issue or idea being discussed.  

7. Know when to stop

Perhaps the most important skill when navigating difficult conversations is knowing when to stop. If you or your loved one becomes angry, threatened, or fearful during the course of your conversation, you will start acting from the emotional and instinctual parts of your brain, and the conversation will become unproductive. If this happens, it is best to stop the conversation and resume it another time when you are both calm. 

Things to try:

  • Monitor your emotions when you are speaking with a loved one. If you find yourself raising your voice or feeling emotionally heated, respectfully ask if you can resume the conversation another time.
  • Pay attention to your loved one’s emotions. If you notice they are becoming angry or begin to attack you personally, do not respond in kind. Respectfully ask if you talk another time when you are both calm.
  • Avoid overloading your loved one with information. If you wish to convey important information, choose one or two pieces per conversation and use mutually trusted sources. 

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