A few months ago, West Michigan Woman held a Facebook Live with Charmeka Newton, Ph.D., a licensed therapist at Pine Rest, who spoke about the heightened tensions related to current events and how many are experiencing disagreements within their interpersonal relationships.
Here, Dr. Newton offers some insight and strategies for how to have these significant conversations and notes the importance of selfcare, educating oneself, establishing ground rules, and what to do when things go wrong.
Whether it's the pandemic, issues related to racial injustice or the upcoming election, tensions are high. What do you notice overall and in your practice?
These are very separate issues, with strong emotions tied to each.
The pandemic has created a lot of anxiety, fear and even hopelessness. The issues related to social injustice and racism have caused strong emotions and anger, as many people feel misunderstood. And the upcoming election brings up a lot of fear due to the unknown.
What advice do you have for people who are feeling these strong emotions?
First, it's important to acknowledge what you're feeling. I often tell my clients, "You can't pour from an empty cup." You need to take care of yourself first. Some ideas for how to do that include exercise, connecting with others—even if virtually—and doing things that elicit positive emotions, like a do-it-yourself home project.
I also recommend that people be real with themselves. Ask yourself tough questions. Research and educate yourself, so you feel more knowledgeable and empowered to have fruitful conversations with others.
If you know you're going into a setting where there are likely differences of opinion, how can you prepare?
Number one is to evaluate whether you have the right expectations. You're not going to change people's opinions right away. You also have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. If you take a confrontational stance, it will shut down the conversation. Something as little as lowering your voice can help.
If we find ourselves in a conflict with another person or group of people, what can we do to prevent it from getting out of control?
Again, it's back to taking care of yourself first. Are you noticing a physiological response, like clenching your teeth? These are your cues that you should share with the other person that things seem to be getting tense and offer another option. Something like, "Can we table this conversation for a more appropriate time?"
What if things do end up going poorly and people get angry and feelings are hurt? How can people recover and reconnect?
First, be willing to recognize your part—and possibly offense—in the conflict and be willing to share that with the other person. How? Prepare "I Statements" to identify what your feelings were and why, and express what you'd like to be different next time. For example: "I felt attacked when you said that every white person is privileged. I'd love to share with you more about my experience working with minorities before you knew me." The next step would be to set some ground rules to keep the next conversation more constructive. Perhaps meeting in private or in a more comfortable settling.
These are unusual times and there is certainly plenty of hurt, blame, and fear to go around. While change can feel uncomfortable, recognizing that good things can come from change is a great first step.
How Could People of Different Generations Best Communicate?
Additional Insight from Charmeka Newton. Ph.D.
Different generations can view societal problems differently because the era in which they grew up in may shape their perspective. As a result of this situation, being transparent can facilitate conversation. In essence "telling your story" of how these societal issues have directly impacted your life may lead the other person to be able to empathize and understand your perspective.
For example: Being transparent and communicating how racism has hurt you may help in building some level of understanding and openness. Some individuals may have never experienced things such as racism. Yet as humans, we can relate to being scared, hurt, embarrassed, and worried. Connecting with people on these core emotions may facility healthier conversations.
Not everyone is willing to have difficult conversations. But those of us who are maybe coming from a more vulnerable and transparent place can advance the dialogue.
Written by Jill Carroll, Marketing Manager for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov 2020 issue of West Michigan Woman.