Healthy connections, healthy communities
Humans are interconnected, and our relationships fold into one another. Here’s why making the best of our close connections can make everyone emotionally healthier.
At the start of the year, The New York Times asked a question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: Why, exactly, is everyone so angry?
There is no question that COVID-19 has taken a toll on our psychological well-being. Pandemic-related stress made headlines with stories of short-tempered customer service agents, conflicts over masks and vaccines, exhausted healthcare workers and weary teachers walking off the job, and anxious parents staging public demonstrations.
The wear-and-tear has been evident in ordinary, daily life, too. Spats with partners or spouses seem to come out of nowhere. Children exhibit more restless, unsettled or even angry behavior. Once-close relationships with friends, acquaintances or co-workers are strained and distant.
After more than two years of disruption, almost everything about interpersonal relationships feels out of sync, at home, at work, and in public venues.
All these things are interconnected. No matter how much we like to think that we keep things separate – such as by “leaving work at work” – none of us lives in a silo, and our feelings don’t exist in isolation either.
How, then, might we start to reclaim a sense of balance and order in our relationships, whether we’re in our own living rooms, an office conference room, or a busy store?
How to build healthier connections
There are several individual practices that each of us can adopt in response to tumultuous times like these. These simple behaviors are equally appropriate with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers alike. One suggestion is to master these approaches at home or in close personal relationships first. Once they become habit, they will likely flow outward into every relationship and encounter.
- Taking time: Regardless of how busy our schedules are, setting aside time to talk and connect is important. you’ve gotten in the habit of “doing your own thing” at home, perhaps try scheduling time together with your partner, child, or roommate. The topics don’t need to be heavy, and the time interval does not need to be long. If
- Reflective listening: We hear a lot about active listening, but reflective listening – repeating back what another person has said to you – can particularly help in situations of conflict. The goal is not to be a parrot. Instead, repeating or restating what the other person said can allow us to hear their perspectives in our own voice, and better understand them. This simple act can change the tone of an interaction.
- Assume positive intent: It’s easy to think otherwise, but there are volumes of social science research behind this simple truth: Most people intend to do right by others and themselves, even when they say or do things that may seem hurtful, insensitive or selfish. When encountering someone whose behavior comes across as callous or hurtful – particularly if that person is a close family member or friend – how might the situation improve if you paused to consider positive intent?
- Be honest with yourself about relationships that are unhealthy, abusive or no longer working as a positive force in your life. Friendly compromise, based on mutual respect, is healthy in relationships. Abusive behavior is not. When you bow out of conversations or interactions that are going in a negative direction, you are investing in your own well-being. If the conflict or negativity is with a close friend, colleague, or family member, perhaps a cooling-off period, giving everyone a chance to breathe and calm down, will, in time, lead to restoring the connection later on.
- Accept things and people for how they are. As the often-quoted Maya Angelou line goes, “When people show you who they really are, believe them.” Although these words are frequently cited in support of ending a unhealthy connection, the true meaning behind them is deeper. Acknowledging people as they are, not as we want them to be, is the foundation of trust and relatedness. This kind of acceptance does take time to master. But even if we want situations to improve, we need to begin with reality.
- Know that self-care isn’t selfish. In your mind’s eye, visualize a pitcher of water. To quench others’ thirst, the pitcher has to be at least a little bit full. Thus, the more people that drink from the water, the more water there needs to be. This is a bit like people. If you’re in any relationship or friendship where the expectation seems to be that you need to put their needs before your own, this circles back to the idea of an unhealthy – and unrealistic – relationship dynamic.
How to build healthier communities
After mastering these relationship skills at home and with close friends, expand outward with additional practices that are focused on community:
- Practicing patience can help us meet others halfway even in tense situations. We do not necessarily have to agree with or even fully understand them or their behavior. But when we sense ourselves getting angry or feeling stressed, a 10-second budget is often enough to breathe, allow ourselves to confirm our own feelings, consider the other person’s perspective, and assess our next steps in the situation.
- Step in for others, if it’s safe. Never do anything you’re uncomfortable with, but in some situations, it’s okay to help build peace between two people or try and help others understand each other, like in the workplace.
- Get involved in organizations that are doing essential work to create peace in your neighborhoods, starting with where your talents are most needed and can make the most difference.
Recognize the power behind small steps
The pandemic’s aftereffects are likely to affect us all, individually and collectively, for longer than any of us would choose. And while the at-large impact is greater than any single person can address alone, our individual behaviors contribute to greater society. Each of us holds the power to affect our own behavior, which in turn affects those around us. In time, with patience and practice, we may find that the small, daily practices we employ to improve our personal relationships eventually make for a more peaceful community everywhere.
Jennifer Balink is the executive director of Kindred Place, a counseling, coaching, and education center for confident parenting and healthy behaviors.