Mastering those hard, unavoidable COVID conversations

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So, how can people with different comfort levels best communicate their needs and concerns with each other without alienating each other?

Be direct about your concerns rather than issuing niceties and dancing around them in the hope that your loved one “can read between the lines”, says Elkins, who has learned this the hard way. “The better conversations I had [started with me saying] ‘Let’s talk about the difficult conversation’,” says Elkins. “[Because] people don’t read between the lines, so you [otherwise] end up going, ‘OK…. I don’t know if they understand the points [I was trying to make].’”

“Often times, the question itself won’t be a bad question to ask, it’s more about the way that we communicate it in an open, respectful and empathetic way.”

Tan-Kristanto agrees. For instance, if a friend’s sibling has COVID-19, and you’re wondering how to ask your friend if they’re infectious, too, before you see them? “It’s just about acknowledging that it is a difficult situation, and, ‘I apologise, and I am going to ask you this uncomfortable question, but it’s really important to me’,” says TanKristanto, director of The Australian Clinical Psychology Association. “‘There’s no judgment around this, I’m really sorry that your brother has COVID, I just need to check in.’

“Often times, you know, it’s not the question itself [that will offend]. The question itself won’t be a bad question to ask, it’s more about the way that we communicate it in an open, respectful and empathetic way. There’s a difference between saying, ‘Can I just check in with you where you’ve been, because I’m a bit cautious of getting it [COVID], and it’s not a judgment on you’ versus, ‘Where the hell have you been that you [might] have COVID?’”

Anyone feeling the need to ask a loved one or acquaintance difficult questions – and anyone who ends up on the receiving end of them – should keep in mind that, two years into a pandemic, people are feeling the threat of Omicron very differently as a result of different life experiences.

“Some people will have their own health vulnerabilities, some are caring for sick parents or kids, some have struggled mentally with lockdowns, while others have loved it,” says Tan-Kristanto. “Others have financial concerns… or can’t afford RATs. I think the biggest thing we need to do is have that empathy and acceptance of everyone’s circumstances, and that we’re all navigating as best as possible.”

If we don’t? “We risk losing that connection with our friends and our family members,” she says, noting that this could result in losing the relationship entirely.

The key to maintaining our “likeability” while also asserting our needs, is to make your communication as “frictionless” as possible, says Elkins.

The first step is to remove emotion from the conversation, she says.

“We feel emotion about this [COVID], and when we feel emotion, we tend to not be our best selves, and that tends to [lead to] accusations,” says Elkins. “Starting with ‘You’re an idiot’” – in response to, say, someone who has an anti-vaccination stance – “is probably the worst place to start. A better response would be, ‘Oh, explain to me how you got to that point, or that understanding?’ So you’re seeking clarification more than condemnation. Condemnation is going to set up barriers. The last thing you want to do is close the conversation if it’s a person that’s important and close to you.”

Secondly, when it comes to organising social events, use behavioral “nudging” techniques that behaviourists the world over employ to make it easier for people to make “better choices for themselves” without forcing them, says Elkins. (These techniques, popularised by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler who won the prize for developing the theory as a policy tool, are frequently used in public health campaigns to encourage people to, for instance, get a flu vaccination.)

“You want something [a message] that is easy, attractive, social and timely,” she says of the primary nudging principles that you can use when telling friends what protective measures you need met in order to feel safe while seeing someone.

This might mean asking someone if they’d be happy to meet up in person, for instance, after your children are vaccinated – or, say, once you’ve had your booster – with a note explaining that you’re double-vaccinated, like 92 per cent of the Australian population aged 16 and above (this is the “social norm” part that “normalises” your request) and an added bit of humour or emoji.

“So you’ve made it very easy [for them] to respond with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’,” says Elkins, adding that these “nudges” are the conversational equivalent of a shopkeeper placing fruit at eye level, instead of junk food, to make it easier for customers to choose the healthy option. “You take away the uncertainty and the difficulty.”

And if your desire for greater safety precautions than others – for instance, not going to a party or asking someone to get a RAT before seeing them – grates on a loved one’s nerves, appealing to their “altruism” can help, too, she adds. “Often we tend to, I know for me, I’m much more protective of those in my circle that I feel are under threat than I am for myself,” says Elkins, referring to people who are, for instance, young, elderly, or immunocompromised. “We tend to defer to those around us that are more vulnerable… so I think what you do, you appeal to their altruism. ‘I’m doing this to protect not only you, but others around me’.”

And know, at the end of the day, that it’s normal to feel anxiety over these conversations.

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“There is no magical, perfect way to have this conversation; it is going to be uncomfortable for some people,” says Tan-Kristanto, adding that even psychologists like her are finding navigating their social and personal relationships challenging right now. “There’s nothing that a psychologist learns in their undergraduate or postgraduate [work] to sort of work out how to ever train to get through a pandemic or anything like that. I’m asking myself the same questions you are, absolutely. It’s just such a hard situation for all of us to navigate.”

And remember, adds Elkins, that having a difficult conversation is better than the alternative.

“I think we always feel better once we’ve had the conversations, rather than not having the conversations. It’s the avoidance of the conversation that’s causing the tension.”

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