Today is my 86th birthday. I am healthy and oh, so grateful for that and for my long life. But I am also exhausted, sad, and frustrated. From being socially isolated for months. From going nowhere. From highly anticipated events getting canceled. My family, friends, and clients tell me that they, too, are feeling pandemic fatigue and increasingly worried. And now we’re all getting impatient and irritable as well. Hopes for an end evaporate over and over. First, it was May, then, September. But now, even a January end may be over-optimistic.
Today while we are socially isolated in our homes, thousands of people in our country are dying of Covid-19 every day. It is a unique global moment. People of every age are hurting. We all need to comfort each other is these difficult times.
Here are my thoughts on what to say and what not to say. My core topics remain the same as always—connection and communication. But how we do that must be recast to fit this unique situation.
Now, it’s time to complain.
In ordinary times, most of us try not to complain. But right now, as a psychologist, I believe that complaining is essential for our mental health. We gain comfort by sharing our fears, worries, sadness, and grief. Putting our feelings into words and saying them out loud gets them out of our bodies and brings relief. I always say to my clients, “Name it, to tame it.” Simple and effective.
When someone tells you they are having a hard time, hear them out, and respond with care. It is easy for our words to miss the mark. I am going to start with what not to say and then move on to effective ways to communicate.
What Not to Say.
Glib reassurances like, “I know everything will turn out well” or Don’t worry, just try and be more positive” usually fall flat. People feel you haven’t heard their concerns and are not taking them seriously.
At Least comments.
Comments like “At least you have a spouse,” “At least you didn’t get the virus,” or “At least you can still walk” are not helpful. They make people feel bad like they aren’t allowed to complain about anything because they are not in the hospital on a ventilator.
A lot of people bristle today when family or friends tells them they should not visit anyone, they should use more sanitizer, and they should just stay at home. Just the word should is a turnoff and increases the probability they will feel annoyed and resistant.
There is a plan.
Telling someone not to feel bad because “There must be a reason why these difficult things are happening to you. It must be God’s plan.” This usually backfires as well. It is built on the premise that we get what we deserve and if a bad thing happens we must surely deserve it. It makes us feel judged and even worse.
Now on to my top three suggestions for effective communicating. I bet they are familiar to you. But most of us need to be reminded about what we once knew.
1. Listen More.
As Hamilton in the musical was told, “Talk less.” Listening well is the number one guideline for effective communication. To understand another you need to listen closely. That requires discipline and focus. It is hard. But, just listening attentively is soothing and usually is more helpful than a thousand words.
2. Reflect Back.
Make it clear you heard what they said. A good way to do this is to summarize, to reflect back in a very few words, the nugget of what they have told you, using their own words. It feels amazingly good to hear your own words said to you by another person. It helps you understand how you feel and to feel understood.
3. Be Empathetic.
Empathy is complicated and not easy to fake. It requires showing that you get not only someone’s words but you understand how the other person is feeling. Today with limited person-to-person meetings, it is harder than it used to be. When we talk on the phone we can’t see the other person, and, on Zoom, we often see a somewhat distorted picture. We often have to put together the clues about what is going on, like a detective, and use our intuition when we comment. Examples. “I imagine that you are feeling kind of lonely right now.” Or, “You are feeling quite worried, is that right?” You check out your assumptions. Or you can just say, “I am sorry it is so hard.” This is an all-purpose comment that works in many situations.
What matters most in life is our relationships. Communication is the way we connect with one another. When we talk about feelings, we connect. That is where the magic is.