Is Isolation Taking Its Toll On Your Relationships? Communication is Key, Baylor Expert Says
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By Derek Smith, Senior Brand Strategy Specialist, Baylor Marketing and Communications
WACO, Texas (April 17, 2020) – As couples and families shelter in place throughout the nation to slow the spread of COVID-19, they are navigating the unique combination of crisis, change and close quarters together.
It’s a stressful time that can bring out the best and worst in people, said Baylor University’s Jane Damron, Ph.D., senior lecturer in communication. Damron, the Baylor University 2019 Collins Outstanding Professor Award winner and an expert on relational communication in times of stress and transition, shares tips for intentional, supportive communication that helps people jointly navigate this period in healthy ways.
We’re navigating numerous transitions at once – working from home, kids at home in many cases, and the uncertainty that comes with COVID-19. What does research show about communication in times of transition/crisis?
DAMRON: Change is inevitable in life, but the nature of the current crisis has impacted most of us in unprecedented ways. Transitions, anticipated or otherwise, can ignite feelings of uncertainty due to our inability to fully explain our circumstances or predict what’s ahead. In close relationships, transitions can have a significant impact on our identities, roles, expectations, behaviors and routines. For many couples and families, big transitions require us to jointly recalibrate, finding new ways of functioning, coordinating and relating to each other.
Communication scholars have compared navigating stressful transitions to the experience of turbulence on an airplane. When we hit turbulence while flying, we tend to become hyper aware of what’s happening, even physically tightening up due to the vulnerability we feel. Similarly, changing circumstances can cause us to be more uncertain and reactive in our relationships. In order to adjust to turbulence and regain a sense of stability, communication researchers suggest that relational partners make conscious attempts to (a) spend meaningful time together, (b) communicate openly with each other, (c) reframe ongoing difficulties in more positive ways, and (d) express their continued commitment to each other, despite the upheaval.
Reestablishing a sense of equilibrium can take time and effort, especially when timelines and outcomes are unknown. Overall, life transitions require reorientation to “a new normal,” as well as renegotiation of things we may have previously taken for granted in our relationships.
How can people be intentionally supportive in their communication during this time?
DAMRON: Having support in tough times has been linked to a variety of positive physical and mental health outcomes. In close relationships, a common expectation is that we will be there for each other during periods of difficulty and distress. But determining when and what type of support is needed, and then delivering that support in an effective way, isn’t always easy.
The good news is that being a supportive friend isn’t about finding the perfect words or “fixing” things. Rather, communication scholars argue that helpful verbal responses are those which simply acknowledge the hardship, validate your friend’s feelings and concerns, and allow them to elaborate and process as needed. Conversely, unhelpful verbal responses are those which blame, criticize or tell your friend to feel differently or “get over it.”
If you’re not sure what your friends or loved ones need right now, don’t be afraid to ask – indirectly or directly. For example, instead of the classic question “How are you?” (which can prompt a closed-ended or scripted response), try “What does life look like right now?” In my experience, this type of inquiry yields more nuanced insights into what your friend is grappling with and what they might need. Direct questions like, “What’s something I could take off your plate today?” or “What’s the best way I can be supporting you right now?” can also be a useful starting point.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself. We are all struggling right now, albeit in vastly different ways. Being there for each other is a two-way street that involves providing but also accepting support.
How can we engage in intentional, meaningful communication not only with family at home, but with coworkers or friends/family from whom we’re apart?
DAMRON: In an age of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we must rely on technology to stay connected with our extended family, friends and colleagues. Keeping in touch with those we love can mitigate the negative effects of physical isolation and help us cope with the stress of the current crisis. To the degree that you are able, make intentional efforts to check in regularly with your people – via text, phone call, video chat or social media. If it helps, set reminders to touch base with certain people on different days of the week. Brainstorm creative, video-based ways to engage in social activities you used to enjoy like getting coffee or playing games. Share your quarantine experience on social media, letting others know they aren’t alone in navigating the complexities of this time.
Intentional communication should also be a priority at home. In times of stress and uncertainty, it’s easy to become impatient and irritated with others, especially those with whom we have the most contact and interdependence. The people we live with may be seeing the best and worst sides of us right now. Tensions are inevitable, but it’s important to frame your frustrations constructively.
Leading relationship researchers recommend avoiding criticism and finger-pointing (“you” statements such as “you’re not listening to me”) in favor of comments focused on your own experience (“I” statements such as “I don’t feel heard right now”). An easy framework to use is “I feel ____ about ____, and I need ____.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed or “flooded” in a conversation, take a break to cool off. Conversely, if you tend to bottle things up, this might be a good time to work on being more open with those closest to you.
In sum, we can’t do this alone. So, whether it’s staying connected with friends or communicating lovingly with your family members at home, it’s critical to keep the lines of communication open so that we have access to the support resources that we need.
Damron appeared on a 2019 episode of the radio program and podcast “Baylor Connections” to share more about supportive communication and using social media to communicate with purpose.
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