With millions vaccinated, we have begun to imagine what's next. For some, the return to work and school will be a relief. For others, it brings a new wave of anxieties. The American Psychological Association reports that half of Americans fear returning to life together, even as they struggle with the mental health impact of isolation.
In my role at Essential Partners, I help people live and work better together by building trust and understanding across differences. Recently, friends and family members have come to me with the questions that keep them awake at night, questions like:
- How will we navigate school reopening as well as the health of our children, teachers and community?
- How do we recognize people's changed expectations, routines and needs at work?
- How do I manage hard conversations about risk and vaccinations at my house of worship?
There are massive challenges in these questions. But there are also hopes and visions of the future. If we can talk about these questions in ways that create trust, understanding and connections, we can foster the cohesion and resilience we need to return to life together. EP recently published a free "Guide to Conversations About Education After COVID" to help school communities do just that.
Drawing from experiences in Massachusetts and around the globe, I want to offer three pieces of advice for those who are re-transitioning to a post-pandemic civic life.
Communicate with intention
The pandemic has revealed many dysfunctional communication cycles that existed before the virus changed all our lives, such as the ways that parents, teachers and administrators communicate (or fail to communicate).
If we want to break those cycles as we transition to a post-pandemic life — or stop them before they have a chance to set in — we need to embrace more intentional communication norms.
It's simpler than it sounds. One way to be more intentional in the way you communicate is by asking yourself: What is my purpose in this conversation? What am I learning about this different person or view? Am I speaking to be heard and understood? Is there a question I can ask to learn more about other views?
The virus is not going away. Returning to work and school will certainly lead to more hard conversations later. We need to think of intentional communication as a core competency for our post-pandemic future.
Slow down and listen
In a conflict, people often rush to act. They want to solve the problem or show that they are taking responsibility. But the best response to a crisis usually begins with listening.
Making a space for people to share their hopes, concerns and experiences can help them feel heard, which opens the door to mutual trust and creative thinking. The deliberate, inclusive work of listening will set a solid foundation for collective decisions.
Moving too quickly, on the other hand, could leave people feeling excluded or ignored. That alienation can fray important relationships and produce self-sustaining cycles of conflict. The antidote is simple: Take time to reflect, listen and connect before jumping into a decision.
Check out your assumptions
The last year has changed us. It has made visible many things that used to be more difficult to see: what we value, what we can and cannot live without, old patterns of communication, workplace dynamics, and the strength of our relationships.
We may be tempted to assume that nothing will change once we return, or to assume that everything will be different. These types of assumptions lead to conflict, confusion and anxiety. If we don't articulate the changes we want — or don't want — we are much more likely to fall into dysfunctional patterns of behavior and communication.
However, those conversations can be hard to start. Here is a series of three questions to guide an intentional conversation about returning to life together:
- What do you notice now in yourself, your team, your family or your organization that you didn't notice before the pandemic?
- What has the pandemic revealed or reminded you about your personal, community and organizational values?
- What changes do you want to hold onto from this year? What do you want to let go of?
Communicating with intention, slowing down to listen and checking out your assumptions are steps that every school, college, workplace, and faith institution can take. These three principles will support more inclusive decision-making, greater trust across differences and a smoother transition to a post-pandemic normal.