Communication in the midst of Corona

I realise now that I’ve been studying how to create environments in which people thrive ever since I was very young. One of my earliest memories is being called upon by my primary school teacher to sit with a troubled boy in the class to calm him down. He was one of the toughest boys in a tough school, but my listening seemed to soften him. I’m grateful that in my current work I continue to be able to use the skills and experience I’ve been growing ever since that time - now with executives, business teams, and groups gathering with purpose.

One of the most formative learning experiences I’ve had in the past 10 years has been living in intentional communities, sharing a home, space and a rhythm of life together. Eventually you get past any honeymoon there might have been at the start, (out of Tuckman’s ‘forming’ and into the ‘storming’ phase of team formation). You get beyond any capacity to be on ‘best behaviour’ every day of the week, and you have to start hitting up against the sharper edges of each other’s characters and personality. For relationships to be energising and not draining, each person needs to be able to be authentic and genuine about what they’re thinking and feeling. When you start hiding or withdrawing as a coping mechanism, you get tired and frustrated: you’re holding-in so much of the life-force that’s wanting you to co-create a healthy environment, that energy, those emotions, turn toxic and end up in depression, violent rage, and disconnection with self and others.

Over the years, as I’ve searched for wisdom for how to manage our relationships and communication, I’ve identified a few rules or principles to help us stay healthy. They are:

  1. First, accept responsibility for meeting your own needs

  2. Lead with vulnerability

  3. Take appropriate emotional risks in safe spaces

  4. Share your story

  5. Name and celebrate diversity

When we’re finding things happy and easy, it’s easy to communicate. We feel we have nothing to hide, and finding words is straightforward, and our body/mind/heart are more easily integrated. When we begin to feel awkward, uncomfortable, hurt, angry, offended, envious, or powerfully ‘attracted’ or drawn by others, this can be more complicated to communicate about.

  1. First, accept responsibility for meeting your own needs

One of the things that especially complicates our closest relationships is that they often function through ‘implicit contracts’ – these are unspoken agreements about quid pro quos in that relationship: for example

  • I’ll look after our children, but you make enough money to make me feel secure and live well

  • You look after me when I’m struggling, and I will make you feel helpful and powerful

  • I’ll let you get your way at home if you don’t control what I do away from home

The problem with these implicit agreements is that we change over time, and also our circumstances change, meaning we have less control to fulfil these informal commitments. For example, I’ve often seen how illness can throw the balance in a relationship, leading one party to start feeling resentful – (resentment is a particular gift for helping us notice that a relationship needs attention) – because that person is suddenly not getting what they’ve come to expect or feel entitled to. The same can happen when children are born (for example this affects sex, free time, holidays, fun etc…); retirement; promotions; getting older; finding new friends; and there are many more).

Questions to ask:

  • How are those implicit contracts being affected?

  • Are there any resentments growing?

Taking some time to identify what our needs are, and how we will go about meeting those needs, is a really helpful way to take pressure off relationships in lockdown. For example, if we realise we need more emotional connection or companionship or conversation than others, we can schedule phone calls or virtual meet-ups that can go some way to meet that need. Similarly, it can be good to try and work out what other people’s needs are, and ideally get clear about what their expectations are of us in these areas, and how we can look to serve others more effectively.

2. Lead with vulnerability

Another helpful prompt to notice that something more complicated is going on, is when we have extreme or disproportionate reactions. What we’ve learned is that these intense responses happen when something that has ‘hit a nerve’, triggering unfinished business from our ‘back story’ in some way: past experiences of shame or rejection, humiliation or withholding, or particularly powerful experiences of feeling loved or unloved. This is hard for us to compute in the moment – that what you’re feeling is not just about what’s happening in the present, but is being energised by something more. We watched a great short film together, (available here which depicts a woman wanting her partner to listen to her troubles about strange and painful things happening around her head. Her partner, who can see what we can’t, keeps trying to point out that it’s probably to do with the nail sticking out of her forehead. “It’s not about the nail” became short-hand for us that there are other dynamics under the surface that are actually energising the drama.

Partly for this reason, leading with what you’re feeling, rather than just the facts of the current situation, often gets you much more in touch with reality, and what’s really going on, and stops us from demonstrating our defences which are more often blame, accusation, justification and rationalisation. In this way acts of aggression, although they can seem powerful, are actually expressions that someone is feeling powerless and out of control. People who have become practiced at staying connected to their power are able to stay self-controlled and don't become aggressive.

When we ‘lead with vulnerability’ we start by communicating what we are experiencing, daring to point to something which is still unknown and murky, not knowing what we’ll discover about ourselves in the process. This takes humility, and it builds psychological safety by making it ok for others to be vulnerable in a non-judgemental space, and starts off the interaction on healthy foundations, modelling an authentic, fearless approach to communication that invites the other person to do the same.

3. Take appropriate emotional risks in safe spaces

Because vulnerability requires trust, it also means that there already needs to be trust in the relationship to make this possible. If there’s not much trust, then it’s not appropriate to go too deep with that person, or in that environment. This led us to come up with the second principle: ‘Emotional risks in safe spaces’. Effective communication requires us to gauge how much trust we think there is in the space, and daring to make ‘calculated risks’ in those relationships: that we’re not trusting others with information that is more valuable than the relationship can hold. In reality, we’ve found this is like a natural law, which if broken, can have negative consequences for both sides. There can also be too much pressure if someone puts a disproportionate amount of trust in you when this has not been earned in the relationship.

4. Share your story

A really natural and helpful place to start with all this is sharing your story. This is a piece of ancient wisdom that many cultures have nurtured through millennia - that even visiting strangers are invited to share the stories of where they've come from, enabling different cultures to begin to see each other. This was demonstrated so powerfully on the forgetable evening that a Vietnamese-American woman came to stay with our community. We gathered for a meal, and decided to tell our stories to her, as a sort of welcome gift. She then went on to tell us her story, which was one of the most extraordinary stories we had ever heard, and totally transformed how we related together over the following weeks that she stayed with us. It caterpaulted our relating into a wonderfully creative, authentic place in a matter of hours.

What matters here is that meaning is subjective, and it’s only by sharing our stories that we can begin to understand, or even co-create, meanings with others. Our origin stories, the families and early experiences that shaped us, and what meanings emerged in those contexts, hold keys that we can share with others.

How easily I can share my story has become another helpful short-cut for me to ‘health-check’ my relationships. If what’s important to me is explicitly or implicitly unwelcome in the culture of a relationship or group, then I can move into hiding, pretending or aggression. This time of lockdown will be putting more strain on intimate relationships in this way, because we’ll be looking to have more of our needs met by a smaller group of friends, relatives and colleagues, and under the pressure of these uncertain times, it’s we’re also more likely to revert to less effective (more infantile) methods of getting those needs met.


5. Name and celebrate diversity!

Over the years we’ve drawn on a range of tools that help to give voice to the different ways that we live in relationships. Some of the most helpful have been:

  • The Five Love Languages

  • TA and the drama triangle

  • The Enneagram

  • C-me behaviour preference profiling

These fantastic tools help us to recognise that we approach all aspects of relationships in different ways, whether it be managing conflicting needs, communication, stress and resilience, working together or relaxing together.

For example, it was useful to find out from the love language questionnaire that 7 people around a table felt most connected by spending time together, and one person felt most connected through acts of service and gifts. It suddenly made sense of the tension that had been going on around meeting together over the previous year.

It’s also helpful to realise how – whether it be a conflict in the office, an emergency at home, or the response to a neighbour’s illness – whether we tend to approach these situations as rescuer (first thought: “they’re not OK, I must rush and help”); victim (first thought: “I haven’t even sat down to have my breakfast yet, and now I’ve got to do this. I don’t suppose I’ll find any time for myself all day now…”); or persecutor (first thought: “how stupid of them to let this happen. I’ll do what must be done, but I’m not going to make them feel good about it, and there’s no way I’m going to (insert future act of kindness) now, and I’ll make sure they understand what a problem they’ve caused).

One of the things that’s so helpful about all of these tools is that they convey how the way to growth is different for all of us. For example the ‘Rescuer’ needs to pause and assess their own needs first, and then consider what gift can be offered with no strings attached. The ‘Victim’ needs to pause to remember that they do have choice and only serve if they can do it from a place of generosity. And finally the ‘Persecutor’ must remember that blame is their own mechanism to deal with their feelings of helplessness, fear and lack of control.

For teams, C-me is a brilliantly accessible way to grow awareness of self and others through recognising observable behaviours, and maps the Jungian axes of Introversion – Extroversion, Thinking – Feeling onto a colour blended wheel, recognising that we are all unique, and all have important contributions to bring from our particular mix of preference strengths. Again this helps us recognise ourselves in how we behave in tricky situations: do we ‘rhino’, (compete), or ‘hedgehog’, (avoid or accommodate), and begin to see responses that can be more creative and thoughtful of others’ needs. (Do get in touch if you'd like to find out more!)

Lastly the Enneagram offers a deep and rich tradition about how we have learned to adapt to our environment in healthy and unhealthy ways, and to enrich our scripts for how we nurture health and move out of destructive patterns.

I hope you might find these 'communication hacks' helpful? I'd love to hear your examples of how you're continuing to enhance your communication during the lockdown. And do get in touch if virtual coaching could help you thrive over this time.

Will James

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