A physician friend of mine suggested hydrating like crazy before and after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. My desire to avoid feeling unwell after my second Moderna dose was greater than my desire for uninterrupted sleep.
It was the third time I had awoken that I stubbed my toe. I tried to hop soundlessly to avoid waking my family. On the next wake up I stubbed the same toe again. My not-so-silent rant woke up the dog, who then woke up my wife, so we could all share a bit of my pain.
Between polarizing elections, civil discord and COVID-19, our nervous systems have been operating with the equivalent of a stubbed toe for the past year. Every time we check social media, try to figure out how to get groceries without getting a virus, or navigate a conversation with someone who has divergent views on hot topics from our own, we poke our stress response. It’s like a campfire that’s smoldering. All it takes is a little wind or another piece of wood to have it burning hot again; like stubbing the same toe for the second or third time.
With this constant low-level prickliness of our nervous systems, almost any irritation can set us off. Here are a few examples that I’ve seen recently:
- A retired paramedic on social media declaring that no one should get COVID-19 vaccinations because they were developed too quickly, launching a heated debate; “Remember Thalidomide, science said that was safe too.”
- A group of unmasked teens talking on the stairs near a coffee shop. A masked man who wanted coffee turned around waving at them with only one finger; “Don’t you realize I’ve got asthma? Are you trying to kill me?”
- A physically distanced outdoor family gathering canceled because of irreconcilable political differences just after the election. They are still not talking to each other.
Even with some dim light at the end of our pandemic tunnel, the low-level stress is going to be with us for a while longer. What can we do to maintain the family, friend and professional relationships we have? What can we do to heal some of the damaged relationships from the last year?
Building the following three concepts into your thoughts and actions will make navigating the world of relationships a lot easier.
1. DON’T ENGAGE IN EGO BATTLES
I learned this one from my friend Michael Keenan. You can recognize an ego battle when it feels like your pride is at stake; when you’re focused on being right and being acknowledged as being right. Recently, I found myself fully involved in one of these ego battles with a coworker on a group email thread. It took a few ugly back and forth emails for me to realize that I was embarrassed and angry.
The moment I realized that I was in an ego battle, I stopped emailing. I calmed myself down with a walk outside. I thought about how important this issue I was battling for would be a month or a year from now. I thought about how important this relationship is to me.
Setting aside my ego while focusing on the relationship I reached out on the phone. I started the conversation with an apology for what I’d said in the emails and how the relationship was more important than the issue. I asked him to work with me to get through it together. This approach disarmed him, and we were able to easily find common ground.
2. RESPOND WITH GENUINE CURIOSITY FIRST
During a workshop, one of my mentors, Maureen Bisognano, president emerita and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement said, “You are all familiar with IQ and over the last few years, we’ve learned how important emotional intelligence (EI) is. It’s time we started working on our curiosity quotient (CQ).”
I’ve been experimenting with this concept for the last several years and it’s been amazing. I’ve discovered that it is not possible to be angry and curious at the same time. I’ve also found that genuine curiosity disarms over 90% of people who have strongly held beliefs.
I posted a recent research study on social media about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on many patients, along with encouragement to get vaccinated. One person responded that their brother-in-law got the vaccine and is now in the hospital “fighting for his life.” I responded with, “I’m so sorry that he’s sick. If you’re comfortable, could you share what his symptoms are and when they started?” This resulted in a long, gentle conversation where it became clear that it’s highly unlikely his illness was caused by the vaccination and he’s gone home from the hospital.
When someone pushes against our beliefs, our natural, often unconscious impulse is to push back. If you can replace your impulse to push with the curiosity impulse, it will transform your relationships instantly.
3. KEEP COMPASSION FRONT OF MIND
Compassion is the ability to recognize suffering and respond with kind action. That action may be to just be with the person without doing or saying anything special. It might be an action to ease or relieve their suffering.
While not everyone has suffered or continues to suffer from the events of the last year, or in anticipation of the year ahead, most people have at least a little. Keep in mind that the person whose tone of voice feels aggressive, whose social media post feels like whisky poured in an open wound, or whose expletive-filled rant after a minor stubbed toe is likely suffering at some level. It will help you respond to what you see and hear with curiosity and kindness.
In his wonderful book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” former Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, MD, says, “we have a universal need to connect with one another.” Relationships matter. I hope that yours are meaningful, happy and healthy.