(Self-) Compassion, Patience, & Covid-19
By Dr. Phylicia Bediako
Qualitative Fellow, Regional Data Alliance
Community Innovation and Action Center
We now live in a phase marked by endless upheaval and disruption to our lives, relationships, and work. As most of us try to create a “new normal” and get back to work and life as usual, we must remember that we are all still relatively new to a very abnormal set of circumstances. We may find that the pandemic has made “normal” a foreign concept for us or some of the people around us. We may feel constantly overwhelmed by our own emotions and reactions to updates and news about the coronavirus. The current state of our world is especially triggering for some and because “triggered” may not look how we expect, compassion and patience should be central to all our interactions. It may be clear to us that people living in communities with high prevalence rates, people of high risk groups, people who still work outside the home, people whose loved ones work outside the home, people who have lost their income, and people with coronavirus diagnoses or deaths in their social circles are likely having a particularly hard time right now. But many people with trauma histories that aren’t related to the coronavirus may also be struggling, especially if their histories involved any isolation or insecure access to resources. Hosts of virtual community conversations or research partnerships should be aware of these background factors that may affect their efforts for the foreseeable future. And while hosts of virtual conversations or data collection projects cannot control anyone else’s emotional experience during this stressful time, they can avoid becoming an added source of stress.
You may find that you or your team members are little less engaged and focused on conversations and less able to moderate the discussion as well as you normally would. You may find yourself less able to retain information, less able to process and make decisions as quickly as you normally do. You may also find yourself less able to stay in control of your emotions and less disciplined than normal. Being constantly anxious, worried, and concerned can drain one’s ability to think clearly and focus on complex or complicated tasks. That makes sense as many people may be functioning primarily out of their fight, flight, freeze response for extended periods of time right now. It also limits one’s ability to contribute to conversations about complex, complicated, personal, sensitive, or challenging topics. Although it may feel concerning or uncomfortable, this is all normal given the collective emotional experience we are having with the pandemic. Now is the perfect time to practice patience, understanding, and compassion for your participants, your team, and yourself.
TIPS FOR TRAUMA-INFORMED VIRTUAL ENGAGEMENT
Over the last several weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has forced us into a state of constant transition. In the process, the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to learn how to better connect with ourselves and others during a crisis. Fortunately, our first few weeks of connecting virtually has yielded some important lessons learned about how to connect with communities and participants in the era of coronavirus and social distancing. Using those lessons and trauma-informed concepts, here are some thoughts for making your next virtual events positive experiences:
- Communicate Expectations: One suggestion for anyone hosting a community-based conversation is to try to offer as much transparency around the nature of the conversation in advance. We all know that conversations may take a different turn than expected, but providing at least a general outline of topics and agenda for the discussion can help participants anticipate how to prepare themselves to engage meaningfully. Ideally, “advance” notice would mean before participants sign up for the event, but this information is still welcome after registration and at the start of the event.
- Check in with Others: Include some time in your agenda to check in with your participants before jumping in to planned activities. Checking in helps some people build relationships and rapport, both of which are important for any session that involves gathering information, discussion around personal or sensitive topics, or learning anything new. Consider making this check-in time optional, given the realization that what helps regulate some, may be dysregulating for others. Also note that it is incredibly easy to lose dysregulated people in the online format, so ensure that your agenda and expectations provide them with context and options in order to do what is best for their needs.
- Use Online Tools to Help Engage Different Communications Styles: Use conference call programs that have simple and straightforward tools – raise your hand functions, online polls – to invite less vocal participants to contribute to the conversation without having to compete for airtime. A written chat option is very useful for inviting more voices into the conversation without waiting for everyone to warm up to speaking up. It may be helpful to have a colleague keep an active conversation in the chat so that participants who are less vocal or who are shy know that the chat option is a meaningful part of the conversation. The person who is leading the verbal discussion may want to periodically check in with the chat to see what the written conversation looks like. This also reinforces the idea that the chat is a meaningful part of the conversation and validates some of the less vocal participants. Make sure to have some rules for conduct outlined for the chat option.
- Equalize Participation: Due to unequal access to internet and computers with video cameras, not all participants will be able to join a conversation held via video conference. Offering a conference call option or a video conference service that includes a phone-only option can be a good way to invite people of different means and walks of life to join the conversation. One tricky aspect of having some people join by video and others join by phone is that people who have turned on their video cameras will not be able to see those who join by phone. According to an article out of Stanford University, it is best practice to have everyone on the video conference enable their video capability to avoid “lurkers”. Being able to see the participants joining your conversation about sensitive and personal topics may increase a sense of safety within the group. At the same time, it is somewhat empowering to allow participants to choose whether to be seen via video. Giving participants an option to turn off their video during these discussions may be calming and empowering for some who do not normally get much choice in their day to day lives, especially choice around their bodies. Again, establishing rules for conduct will be helpful for creating an atmosphere of safety.
Some closing thoughts to help you keep your own peace of mind: You and those around you may be struggling to keep up with the sudden influx of invitations to connect virtually. Many people have started admitting that they feel overwhelmed, drained, and even burned out by technology-based social interactions. As such, you may notice weaker or less active participation in discussions you host in the coming weeks. This weaker level of participation may last well beyond the end of social distancing. It may last longer than you would expect or hope. Resist the urge to get down on yourself, your team, or your participants if your virtual events don’t go as planned. Just keep track of what went well and what you could do differently next time. And if you start to feel discouraged, just remind yourself that we are all still trying to adjust to constant transition. This is harder than it seems!
 Stanford University IT. (2019). Best practices for video conferencing. Retrieved from: https://uit.stanford.edu/videoconferencing/best-practices
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