Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Dealing with the doubters

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • Coronavirus is being blown out of proportion.
  • The flu kills more people every year. This social distancing is over the top.
  • If I get coronavirus, I get it – nothing much I can do about it. I’m at low-risk anyway.
  • A virus isn’t going to stop me enjoying life and seeing my friends.

Maybe there are people in your family or social circle who express these views. In this post, I offer some practical guidelines for respectful disagreement over how to respond to a public health emergency.

(If you’re one of the “doubters” yourself – keep reading. I won’t refer to what the experts say about protecting yourself and others, and I won’t scold. My guidelines can help with any strong disagreement, regardless of your position.)

If you’re trying to protect yourself and your family during a public health emergency, interacting with people who don’t share your sense of the risk, or who refuse to follow public health measures, is extremely frustrating. How to respond to your neighbour who wants to send her child over for a playdate at your place? What about your parents who refuse to cancel the weekly family dinners?­­

The single most important factor to get through this kind of conflict is to adjust your own mindset. The key is to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot control. A moment’s reflection will tell you that “other people” is at the top of the list of things you cannot control. The sooner you understand this, and the sooner you are at peace with it, the better.

The next thing you have to come to grips with is that (generally speaking) a better understanding of facts does not change people’s behaviour. For example, smokers tend to be equally informed about the health risks of smoking as non-smokers. The knowledge doesn’t help them quit. Most people who are overweight are fully aware that they should eat less and exercise more. Explaining the health risks of carrying on as normal under coronavirus is probably a waste of time. The risks and possible consequences have been repeated frequently.

Understanding that you can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, you must focus on what you can control – namely, your own thoughts and actions. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Decide on the measures you will take to protect yourself and your family. What boundaries will you observe?
  2. Do not get into arguments with people who have different boundaries. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it will make it harder for them to back down eventually if they change their views.
  3. If you are challenged or drawn into a discussion of your boundaries, it is fine to simply state your position and keep it at that.
  4. How much of an explanation you offer for your position will depend on your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. What you say to close family members who disagree will differ from what you say to casual acquaintances.
    • To the father of your child’s friend who suggests a playdate: “We’re keeping the kids at home, and we’ve told them no visitors.”
    • To your client who wants an in-person meeting: “As long as the public health advisory is in force, I am holding all meetings by video conference.”
    • To your parents who want the whole gang to come over for dinner: “We love you and miss you – and we don’t want anyone to get sick. As soon as the danger has passed we’ll get back to our regular dinners. Think of how we would feel if you got the virus because of one of us.”

What all of these responses have in common is that they are respectful, they do not attempt to persuade, and they do not invite further discussion.

  1. If someone “won’t take no for an answer” or tries to draw you into an argument, simply say, “It looks like we see things differently” (or some equivalent) and either change the subject or end the conversation.
  2. Whatever boundaries you set need to be clear and consistent. They are your boundaries – you don’t need anyone else’s approval and you don’t have to justify them or convince anyone else that you’re right.

(What I have said about the importance of mindset draws on my understanding of Stoic philosophy, and in particular The Handbook by Epictetus.)

About the image: Salvador Dali walking his pet anteater in Paris. Source: Open Culture