Staying United

Checklist before we go out:

  1. Am I prepared to be safe and keep others safe, assuming any one of us could be infected without knowing it?
  2. Am I ready to engage in team building with others, to be kind and encouraging, with the generous assumption that they also have positive intentions, even when it sure doesn’t look like it? This assumption is a gift we give each other that goes a long way.

Unlike many people around the world, we may live in neighborhoods where we aren’t used being unsafe when we leave our home and do simple things like going to the grocery store. Now, with the pandemic, we need to get used to being unsafe. With the opening up process, we will be less safe than during the stay at home phase, especially with and research showing all essential workers are not following safe practices and others being openly defiant. So, we need to get better at this.

We, citizens all over the world, have been drafted into a global war against COVID-19. This isn’t really voluntary; it is a moral obligation. In this war there are two divisions with different roles, actually quite similar to how the body defends itself against the invasion of a virus.

The first unit in the body to deal with a virus is the innate immune system, whose job is to provide a barrier to prevent the spread of the virus within the body. On the level of society, this is the role we have been conscripted by our governments to play, to form a Citizen’s Division, so to speak. When these barriers are breached by the virus, the adaptive immune system gets triggered.

The job of the adaptive immune system is to actually kill the virus and eliminate it. This is the role our scientists, science-based corporations and medical teams are playing for our society. Scientists and corporations are famously competitive with each other. But now, they have suddenly started cooperating like never before. Corporations are releasing patented information, previously kept secret. Scientists are sharing their findings as they come in, with no concern for who gets credit. The whole scientific and medical community world-wide will be deserving of a Nobel Prize, not just individuals.

And we, in the Citizen Division, are doing pretty well with our job of containing the spread of the virus. But some cracks are showing. Unlike the scientists and medical professionals, we weren’t trained for this. Remember how hard it was at first to keep track of what we touch so we don’t infect ourselves or others? Or even to remember to wash our hands thoroughly?

What we have to do now involves more emotional and mental self-control than some of us have developed. It is like this. Your car may have a lot of little things wrong with it, but if you never drive over 45 mph, you don’t even notice them. They don’t matter. But when you try going 110 mph, the car might shake, be hard to steer, and the brakes might fail. So it is with our mental and emotional self-control. Under the demands of the pandemic, our weakness are showing. We may need some fine tuning to do our jobs without turning on each other or just throwing in the towel and going AWOL. That would be deadly.

The scientists and medical systems are cooperating like never before. Scientists are usually highly competitive with each other. Now they are cooperating. So are science-based corporations, sharing patents they used to keep as trade secrets.

The Citizen Division has also been impressively unified, but now it will get harder.

To engage in team building, we may need to be better able to tolerate negativity in others and better able to control it in ourselves. Maybe they aren’t expressing their concern very diplomatically or skillfully. I had no idea how good people can be at this till I observed professional diplomates in action. It was impressive. They put people at ease in a genuine way, first, by being calm and confident themselves. They look past an angry delivery to try to find the heart of what is upsetting the other party. The intensity of a person’s response tells us how strongly they feel about what they are saying, or how close to the edge they are. Pushing back with equal intensity is simply not helpful. We can be calm and considerate without losing our own voice.

Brain studies show people are not able to hear your point of view until they feel you have understood theirs. This is a pickle when both people have the same conflicting need at the same time. So we have to be the ones to start by being empathic toward them, or it may never happen.

So, help the other person be calm by being calm yourself. If you haven’t mastered this yet, it may be better to say nothing until you can do it well. Most of these encounters are brief in situations where we can’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart. They are busy and we are too. And neither of us really wants to do this anyway.

Second, let’s try not to take offense when someone expresses upset about our behavior. If a defensive response wells up inside you, that is the time for the deep breath you are tired of hearing about. Try to see what they are seeing. They may have a point, but we can’t see it yet. Safe practices are actually a bit more complex than we think. Maybe the other person understands something about it we don’t. If you are unable to take this calm approach, maybe apologize for it, like “I’m sorry. This is really hard for me. I don’t take criticism well.” You might as well say it rather than proving it by being reactive.

We notice someone not following safe practices. We feel threatened. Now what? The goal is to effectively recruit them into safer practices in a team building way. People have worked on this. The book Giving Voice to Values, is about confronting people about their behavior. It suggests we try out ideas in advance for what to say and then practice saying them several times before we are in the situation. Their follow-up research shows it produces good results. These responses are something to brainstorm with family and friends. The goal again is teambuilding.

This is also a good time to review what we know about effective communication. Many of us have had workshops. There is a ton of good information on it on the web. This is a good time to review it. But we won’t use it if we don’t have adequate mental and emotional self-control.

Thank you for your efforts.