With the election and the holidays approaching, you may be experiencing some conflicts with family and friends when the conversation turns to Covid. It has been a hard year for all of us, whether we are under extreme lockdown or just trying to get our kids through the school day. This post will hopefully provide some pointers on how to cope. If only things were as easy as that infamous Monty Python sketch.
When I was seeing my own conflicts over the pandemic, I first thought to bring in a professional mediator. I’ve known June Jacobson for close to 20 years. We first met under very difficult circumstances: I was getting divorced and my (now) ex-wife and I had decided to try her rather than both hire our own lawyers. Our sessions with her didn’t work out, but June and I remained in occasional contact.
June continues to work almost exclusively with mediation for divorcing couples and has had several families who have come to her explicitly about resolving their Covid issues. Certainly Covid has changed the nature of her consultations. “Everything is happening online,” she told me in a recent call. “While it is true that people don’t have to travel, they may not have a home environment that can be private enough, especially if they have kids or other family members living with them. Spouses who are still living together sometimes have to share the same computer screen, which can require close physical proximity that may not feel comfortable or safe.”
This lack of compartmentalization has accelerated some issues with divorcing couples and these times are trying ones for couples that are nearing the end of their marriages. “More people want to get divorced now that they have been incarcerated with their spouse all this time.” Still, the basics of mediation haven’t changed. “Usually, when a couple first comes in to see me, they need a shared agenda and a common plan. I use some tools from therapy to help with listening to each person’s point of view, and try to facilitate communication and contribute to mutual understanding.” She has a wide spectrum of training, including social work and legal degrees. “What makes mediation successful is that there are usually overriding values that enable a couple to come to the table to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. We try to focus on the future, not get stuck in the past with trying to agree on a narrative of the history of their relationship. My job is to be non-judgmental about this historical context, to understand and respect their realities, and sometimes to hold alternative versions of reality from each partner in mind.”
Part of the Covid contention is that people start out from wildly differing fact bases. Then stir in a few conspiracy theories and what you have is truly a failure to communicate. Covid has certainly made things harder for families that have to run their businesses and schools and day care all out of a house that is maybe severely space-constrained and ill-designed for these multiple purposes.
While I was talking to June, I read this NYT article by Charlie Warzel about coping with difficult family discussions. Warzel has several tips on how to interact with your family members with Covid contention:
- Give people an understanding of their information environment
- Create a bit of common ground and lay the foundation to explore how unproven conspiracy theories differ from reality
- Fact-checking is valuable but don’t count on it to change someone’s beliefs
- Don’t debate these issues on Facebook
- Don’t be a scold — be gentle, compassionate and patient
- Know when to walk away and try another day.
These gambits sound good in theory, but in the real world it is hard to implement them in practice. But I want to end this post on a lighter note, so I will leave you with one last link, to a clip from Lewis Black’s latest comedy routine, where he touches on this contention. The clip is NSFW but very funny. Almost as funny as the Pythons’ bit.