A survival guide for managing workplace COVID discussions

As our national discourse sinks to new lows, take these steps to keep a cool head when tense topics arise.

Staying clam amid COVID talk

Well, here we are, 18+ months into dealing with COVID-19. Unfortunately, many challenges remain.

And additional challenges have developed – not only dealing with the actual physical repercussions of the virus – but now having to manage a wide range (and varying intensities) of opinions about COVID-related issues: masks, the vaccine, mandates, safety of our children, and new virus variants to name a few.

The tension is thick in the air – within the culture at large, on the airwaves and internet, within families, and within workplaces.

A number of factors combine to create a significant sense of anxiety for most of us:

  •  The unpredictability of the future.
  •  Conflicting information being shared in the media and on social media.
  •  A resulting confusion in determining who and what to believe.
  •  The strong feelings many have related to underlying values such as individuals’ right to choose, protection of society at large, and the role of government.
  • Ongoing concerns about how the coronavirus will affect us personally and as a society.

So, the tension we feel is justified.

What to do?

The behavioral options for responding to the angst we feel are almost as numerous as individual personalities. But there are five general responses that encompass the way most people react.

1. Not interacting with others (at all). If you don’t talk with others, you aren’t going to talk about the issues affecting your daily life. Problem: this isn’t a realistic option over time.

2. Avoid talking about COVID and the related issues. Avoid the topic. Stick to communicating about business-related issues. Problem 1: This probably isn’t realistic for very long. Problem 2: You can’t control what other people talk about, and some people will raise the topic.

3. Minimize the COVID-related conversations. Keep interactions brief. Don’t share much in response to questions or comments by others. Problem 1: This approach takes a fair amount of emotional energy to implement consistently. Problem 2: Some people may be offended by your apparent cool, distant approach (and/or try to push you to share your thoughts and decisions).

4. Let ‘er fly. Freely share your thoughts and opinions to whoever will listen or is in the room. Problem: A high probability exists of creating discomfort for others, possibly offending some, and potentially resulting in a confrontational interaction with a colleague who disagrees with your comments.

5. Attempt to have a conversation focused on understanding others. Since there will probably be others who have different viewpoints than yours, this is an opportunity to listen to their perspective and try to gain a better understanding of what is important to them (their values). Problem 1: This can take a lot of emotional energy, especially when the topic of discussion is one about which you hold deep (and potentially different) beliefs. Problem 2: You can control your interaction and responses, but you do not control how your colleague is going to react during the conversation. (Note, however, that most people are fairly calm when they feel the other person is seeking to understand, rather than to argue or defend their own position.)

Reality-based reminders

It is helpful to remind ourselves of some foundational facts about the situation. These include:

We each have choices of how we want to deal with the situation. We may not like the choices we have (that is, we may wish people could discuss their differing perspectives calmly and without judgment). But it is usually best to consider the options we have and determine our actions and responses ahead of time.

People have differing viewpoints. And unless you live in a homogeneous viewpoint bubble, some individuals with whom you interact will disagree with your perspective.

Many people have intense feelings about how COVID-related challenges should be handled. Why? Because they have individual core beliefs and deeply held values that intersect with choices being made.

Some people share their thoughts and feelings freely (possibly more that you desire to hear them). This means you are going to have to figure out a process for managing this potential event.

You probably aren’t going to change someone’s mind. This is true even if your view is “right” and you are an amazing communicator. Why? Because our values and core beliefs develop over time and are not easily changed.

A good possibility exists that we will have to continue to deal with the issues in the coming months. As a result, conversations about COVID, masks, and vaccinations will stretch out for a long time. You should consider this factor as you communicate with others.

You will almost certainly have ongoing (even long-term) relationships with your work compatriots. Remember that you are going to be working with (and for) your colleagues, making and handling requests from them, and collaborating as a team together. Consider your words and reactions to others in light of this longer-term perspective.

Tips for handling difficult situations

One initial tip. Before you initiate (or enter into) a conversation about COVID-related issues, answer this question: What is the purpose (for you) of talking about the topic?

  • Just friendly conversation
  • To challenge / correct others’ positions and beliefs
  • To complain about … (whatever you think is wrong about the process or current situation)
  • To vent to someone (who potentially agrees with you)

Additionally, consider these practical suggestions:

  • Manage yourself, your emotional reactions, and what you say. Know your limits – what you can and probably shouldn’t talk about, and with whom.
  • Limit the length of conversations. The longer we talk, the more likely we are to say something we’ll regret later.
  • Focus on relating to others from a place of kindness and respect (rather than focusing on “being right”).
  • Think ahead about some strategies for managing stressful situations. Excusing yourself and leaving the room. Going for a walk. Finding a place to take some deep breaths and calm yourself.
  • Realize when you are reaching a point where “you’ve had enough.” Pay attention to your internal cues (tension in your jaw, neck, back; feeling physically hot; early signs of agitation and anger). Take action to manage your reaction before you “lose it.”

Hopefully, these reminders and suggestions will help you (and those around you) reduce the stress around COVID-related conversations and assist in continuing to build positive, supportive relationships at work.

Dr. Paul White is a psychologist who specializes in helping organizations create positive workplace cultures and healthy work relationships. For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com and read ” Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment.”


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