COVID Conversations: How to Speak Up and Stay Friends

Mother and Son wearing masks while talking outdoors.

COVID-19 has caused considerable behavioral shifts, with “everyday” activities being called into question. Handshakes and hugs are now recognized as risky greetings. Mask-wearing has morphed from seemingly standoffish to being generally accepted as community stewardship. 

Many of us are still struggling to navigate this new existence. Neighbors may have differing opinions about safety measures. Family members might disagree with certain protocols, causing a rift within those relationships. 

5 Strategies for Positive Social Interactions

Below are 5 strategies for positive social interactions gleaned from a podcast featuring two University of Vermont Medical Center physicians whose jobs involve navigating difficult conversations.

Tim Lahey, MD, director of clinical ethics at the UVM Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at The University of Vermont, shares that the key to overcoming the challenging encounters we’re all facing is to ground yourself with patience and understanding.

“It’s easy for us to leap to conclusions about behavior having bad motivations. When, in fact, it's normal human behavior to forget, or to be confused or to have been misinformed. That person is just trying to get through the day and do the best they can. If we have a forgiving, compassionate framing, I think it's easier to remember to communicate in a way that's more approachable and less likely to lead to conflict.” 

Robert Gramling, MD, Holly and Bob Miller Chair in palliative medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at The University of Vermont and chief of the palliative medicine division, concurs with this approach. 

1) Acknowledge any awkwardness with a humorous angle. 

Finding a bit of comedy in the situation, while conjuring internal compassion for the person you're talking with, goes a long way. 

“That person is probably trying to deal with something totally new as well,” notes Dr. Gramling. “Some of what we’re dealing with really is odd and even funny, so [it’s important] to find that space in yourself to say, ‘I'm really trying to do something I've never done before,’ and cut yourself and others some slack.”

2) Free yourself from the misconception that you have to be responsible for another person’s behavior. 

No one knows what anyone is really going through at any given moment. For example, someone may have just received bad news. This doesn’t mean you have to absolve others’ behavior, but it helps to put the situation in a more forgiving light.

3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and voice your concerns. 

If you’re attending a gathering, it’s OK to inquire about the host’s proposed social distancing guidelines. Also, be upfront about your expectations. 

“Anticipate that possible moment and say something like, ‘If it turns out there are lots of people, I hope you won't take it personally if I leave a bit early.’ Just so it's a little easier for you in the moment to react the way that's most appropriate, without feeling uncomfortable about it,” says Dr. Lahey.

4) Get creative with social interactions. 

Face coverings and social distancing make it difficult to have clear conversations—particularly for anyone living with a hearing or vision impairment. Dr. Gramling shares a personal example of when he and a friend were sitting comfortably six feet apart and actually conversing via their mobile devices. 

“It was a lovely conversation. We could talk in a regular voice. We could hear each other's emotion. We felt connected, and it worked.”

5) Clarify your position in a non-judgmental way. 

If you’re looking out for a neighbor or elderly family member who is staunch about not taking necessary precautions, it's perfectly appropriate to shape your own behavior in response to that attitude. 

“You don’t need to do it in an angry way or feel like you can't [speak up]. I’d say, for instance, ‘I respect your point of view, but I hope you understand that since I'm really worried about this virus, and I want to make sure I'm a good neighbor, I'm going to have to leave.’ They may realize they could experience a consequence, but they experienced it at the hands of somebody they can only see as being pleasant and respectful,” explains Dr. Lahey.

It All Comes Down to Positive, Transparent Communication

Ultimately, the best advice Drs. Lahey and Gramling can pass along is communication—and not the negative kind. “I think sometimes in COVID-19, when people feel anxious or even fearful for their own safety, it's easy to lapse into those finger-pointing kind of communications. ‘You should know better,’ or ‘You have to do this, don't you care?’ That [approach] is incredibly important to avoid,” cautions Dr. Lahey.

“Giving [someone] the benefit of the doubt is going to get you off on far better footing. It won't solve everything. There will be some conflicts; we totally understand that. But, there are going to be lots of avoidable ones,” adds Dr. Gramling.

 Stay Informed

Sign up to receive the latest stories, information and guidance from our experts on a wide variety of health topics.