No matter how well you get along, spending every day together can eventually take its toll.
Amid the slew of challenges I’m faced with as I grapple with COVID-19, one is front and center.
How do I get along with my family while I’m cooped up at home?
For the most part, I’ve loved spending more time at home with my husband, and enjoy the flexibility of our schedules.
Living in a one-bedroom home, however, means we’ve had to get more creative with the way we coordinate daily life.
From use of common space, to scheduling meal prep, to delegating “office” space usage (i.e., who gets to work in the kitchen vs. the patio table), it has required an ongoing balancing act of his needs weighed against my own.
No matter how well you get along with someone, spending day in and day out with them can eventually take its toll.
I’m not alone. Many of my friends are struggling to adjust to the increased amount of time spent in close quarters with the people they live with.
High-stress situations can compromise our ability to think, act, and communicate clearly and rationally.
For most of us, being confined to our homes and having so many aspects of our lives upended has caused a lot of extra stress.
Whether you’re spending more time with family members, a spouse, friends, and roommates — and even if you live alone — you may be experiencing challenges in your ability to communicate well with others right now.
Once I noticed this coming up for me, I reached into my toolkit to shift the conversation. I remembered there are some simple but very effective ways I can improve how I’m relating to the people around me.
I’ve incorporated these tools when communicating with my husband and family and found they make all the difference.
The four tools below are derived from basic nonviolent communication (NVC) principles developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, PhD.
The goal of NVC is to help people strengthen their ability to connect compassionately with self and others so that differences can be resolved peacefully.
The basic roots of interpersonal conflict are more universal than you might think, so the tools for resolving conflict this way can be applied to many different situations.
1. Make clear requests instead of demands
We’re used to thinking in terms of what we want people to stop doing (“Don’t yell at me!”), and how we want them to be (“I want you to treat me with respect”), rather than what we want them to do (“Would you be willing to lower your voice or talk later?”).
Instead of demanding what you don’t want the other person to do or say, try making a request for the behavior or action that you do want.
Remember that it’s a request — which means the other person has the choice to deny or accept it. Giving the other person choice lets them know that their needs matter as much as your own.
As an example, let’s say your housemate is talking to a friend on FaceTime with the volume on full blast for the tenth time this week. Instead of losing your cool, try asking if they’re open to taking their calls in private, with headphones, or at a given time each day.
The key difference between making requests versus demands is that often a denied request leads to further dialogue, whereas a denied demand tends to lead to more conflict and no resolution.
2. Be observant
Bringing observation into our communication with others means we separate our judgments from what really happened. This helps us realize that our experience can be very different from the other persons.
For example, my husband might be offended if I tell him he’s inconsiderate. But if I say, “You left your dishes from dinner on the kitchen table for 24 hours,” then I’m giving a description of what happened.
This stops me from drawing a conclusion about why he did it or his feelings toward me.
When we separate the description of the event from our judgment of it, we can communicate what we’re upset about without automatically prescribing meaning to it.
3. Voice your needs instead of acting out
Often, when I lash out or overreact, it’s because I want to communicate a need.
For example, maybe you’re arguing with a family member over when to turn off the TV at night. If you dig a little deeper for the need behind the demand, you may find that your need is for a full night’s sleep.
If you can communicate that need, rather than jump to the demand, you’re more likely to get buy-in from your loved one.
In the context of NVC, needs refer to your core values and deep longings. Understanding, naming, and connecting with your needs helps you improve your relationship with yourself and others.
Once you know what your needs and the needs of the other person are, you’re more likely to take actions that meet those needs. This helps build stronger bonds with people, which helps you get along.
4. Create connection, not conflict
The ability to truly listen in a way that creates connection rather than conflict requires empathy.
Relating with empathy is the process of connecting with another by guessing their feelings and needs.
Bringing this quality into everyday conversations and conflicts can have a truly transformative effect. It shows that you’re present and willing to give your full attention to the situation.
Empathy also helps you access new reserves of kindness and generosity. In seemingly impossible situations (like being confined to our homes for months on end), it can open you to creative solutions that were unimaginable when clouded by disconnection.
A simple way to practice empathy is to mirror back what you hear your loved one saying to you.
For instance, maybe your partner seems tense or on-edge. You could respond with, “I’m sensing that you’re feeling stressed. Is there something I can do to help?”
These little check-ins can go a long way toward opening up dialogue and showing that you’re paying attention.
The strain on relationships right now is very real. Collectively, we’re being forced to grow and adapt quickly. Interpersonal communication is one of the areas where growth is needed most.
When we put these skills to the test, we give ourselves and our loved ones the opportunity to grow and connect more deeply.
My suggestion is to put the skills above into practice one day at a time. Use the first day to request instead of demand, the second to observe, and so on.
Notice how quickly your interactions change.
As I’ve shifted to see this experience as an opportunity to gain new life skills, I feel more confident that I’ll come out of this challenging time even stronger.
I have a chance to learn more about my loved ones and, most importantly, about myself.
Chantal Peterson is a writer and content marketing specialist with over a decade of experience. She helps teams grow their businesses through content campaigns, targeted marketing copy, and bespoke content experiences. She’s also a certified women’s self-care practitioner and leads workshops and retreats throughout California.