Walking through tight grocery store aisles, brushing past people on sidewalks or dealing with roommates who don’t take physical distancing seriously is causing people to stress and in some cases reshaping their lives quicker than they’d like.
Perrin Wilson chose to move out of the room she rented in a couple’s townhouse when the wife refused to stop offering eyelash extensions and Thai massage out of the home.
“She said ‘I’m waiting for the government money to kick in’ and because [she’s] self-employed it’s been a bit of a process,” says Wilson, who is taking extra precautions as she works in a long term care pharmacy. “I understand and I empathize with that — but it doesn’t make it okay, it doesn’t justify it.”
Jessica Rourke, an expert in conflict, says empathizing with someone is the first step to avoiding conflict in a touchy situation. Rourke has a doctorate in social psychology and teaches a class on interpersonal communication at the University of Victoria, along with facilitating restorative justice dialogues between victims and offenders of crime — all areas that touch on dealing with conflict.
Since the declaration of the pandemic, there have been a number of social media posts ‘ranting’ about people not keeping their distance at the grocery store or on sidewalks outside, and Rourke acknowledges tensions are running high but suggests people follow two simple steps to avoid disputes and help others see where you’re coming from — “observing and listening.”
Rather than approach someone with your evaluation of their behaviour and judgments, Rourke says a better strategy is telling people what you’ve seen that leads you to the conclusion.
“An observation is that the government has asked we maintain a distance of at least two metres from each other and if I’m standing at the grocery store and the staff have put down masking tape lines on the floor [I can say] you’re standing much closer to me than the line indicates.”
Rourke adds that if you can approach the conversation in a positive way and establish some common ground to begin with that’ll go a long way in getting your point across. “You could say isn’t it crazy how everything’s changed at the grocery store and one of those things is how close we can stand together and I’m noticing … — and then go into your observations,” says Rourke.
Then listen to what that person has to say.
Rourke suggests repeating what they’ve said back to them to help show you’ve understood and then state how the situation is making you feel.
She says approaching any conversation from a place of curiosity is the best way to show empathy. “So instead of wondering why the heck you’re doing this, [approach it from], I wonder what’s going on for you that this is the choice you’re making.”