The lockdown due to the corona virus is a mixed blessing. For many of us who could not spend enough time with our families, it is an opportunity to reconnect with our spouses and children. It has been like a prolonged vacation. But vacations mean sight-seeing, exotic lunches and dinners and multiple activities. You are not locked up indoors 24/7. After all, how much can you talk to each other, how many movies can you watch together, how many dishes can you enjoy? The novelty of it wears off after some time and starts acting on your nerves providing a fertile ground for conflicts to arise. Small infractions, misunderstood words, perceived slights, imaginary or real differences start getting highlighted and magnified. So how do we deal with this?
First and foremost, we need to be GRATEFUL. I imagine someone who is sentenced to solitary confinement locked up in a cell probably 6'x6' with very little fresh air and light with no one to speak to, no cell phone, no TV and no news of the outside world. I then start counting my blessings – I have people round me, I can see their faces, hear their voices, talk to them, call my friends and relatives, watch the news and, inspite of being locked down at home, remain in touch with the outside world. I think of all these blessings and feel grateful.
Someone said "It is your attitude that determines your altitude and not your aptitude". Attitude is a measure of your EQ (Emotional Quotient). It is very important to have the right attitude and there is no better attitude than gratitude. Gratitude is that magic key that opens the treasure chest of happiness and well-being. "Thank you" are those magical words that acknowledge, foster and strengthen relationships. If you are a believer, try saying thank you to God instead of placing a list of demands. It will work wonders.
Secondly, we need to learn to PAUSE. We are slaves to our emotions. When we are angry, we lash out at the perceived source of our anger. We utter words that we would not dream of saying otherwise. Anger comes in waves and sweeps away love, harmony, trust, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to control our emotions and exercise self-restraint. It is essential to understand what happens to our bodies when we are overwhelmed by strong emotions like anger. In his book "Emotional Intelligence", Daniel Goleman refers to the "amygdala" - a bunch of neurons situated near the base of the brain – discovered by Joseph Le Doux. It is called the "reptilian brain" being one of the first parts of the brain to develop in vertebrates. Research has shown that signals of threat (or reward) travel from the sensory organs to the amygdala in a single synapse. The amygdala, which is the storehouse of survival instincts acquired over centuries of evolution, immediately signals the body to start secreting hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline. The secretion of these hormones triggers the primeval fight or flight response ingrained over centuries of struggle for survival. This is manifested in the draining of the blood from the face, trembling of hands and legs, clenching of the fists, running away or lashing out physically. The lashing out may not always be with the fists but also with the tongue.
The same research has shown that another signal of the same event from the sensory organs travels to the frontal cortex which is the thinking brain. This signal is however slower than the signal to the amygdala. There is approximately a delay of about 10 seconds between the first signal reaching the amygdala and the second signal reaching the frontal cortex. If we succumb to the first signal, we may suffer from what is called as "amygdala hijack". In other words, the amygdala acts so powerfully that it overwhelms the frontal cortex, giving no opportunity for a more reasoned response. While this is good when you are running away from a hungry lion, the amygdala hijack can do tremendous damage in more commonplace occurrences such as threats perceived in domestic relationships. A higher EQ means that you pause for a few seconds and allow the frontal cortex to think of a more reasoned and measured response to the perceived threat, rather than the instinctive reaction triggered by the amygdala. When our elders used to tell us to count till 10 when angry, they obviously knew about the difference between an instinctive reaction and a measured response though they may not have known its neuroscience. The analogy of an elephant and its mahout has been given to the Emotional Mind and the Rational Mind. As along as the elephant is under the control of the mahout, things are fine; but once the elephant decides not to obey the mahout, all hell breaks lose.
Thirdly we need to learn to REFLECT. Once the rational mind gains control through the pause button that we apply to our emotional mind, what is needed is a conscious effort to reflect on what happened, analyse why it happened, try to understand the probable causes and look at the whole issue from not just our perspective but from the perspective of the other person. What could have happened that made them do what they did or say what they said? Reflect back on the sequence of events to see whether it was because of something you said or did. Remember that they may be victims of amygdala hijack themselves. Something you said or did may have created a threat perception in their minds. Go back to the past few hours (some times even days) to check if something happened that may have triggered the threat perception. People sometimes don't act immediately on perceived provocation but they harbour a grudge. They may wait for an opportunity to hit back. Reflection provides scope for empathy.
Fourthly we need to learn to COMMUNICATE. Effective and purposeful communication is the key to peaceful resolution of conflict. Communication being a two-way process, listening is an integral part of communication. Listening to understand is a very difficult exercise but indispensable to understand the other person's perspective. Listening provides an opportunity to your partner to vent, and, once the venting happens, your partner is in a better frame of mind to listen to you. The best way to do it is to lay down the ground rule that when one person speaks the other should not interrupt and then ask your partner to speak first. To adapt a trite cliché used for justice - "Listening should not only be done but also seen to be done". Show your partner that you are listening by nodding your head, using extenders like "uh", "uh uh", "ok" and so on. Interrupt only when you wish to ask for clarification of something that has been said. And in the end summarise.
When it is your turn to speak, address the problem and not the person.
Say "I find the sheets not folded and the bed not made and this makes the room look untidy" and not "You are the one who wakes up last and it is your job to fold the sheets and make the bed";
Say "Since I am busy in the kitchen, I need some help in cleaning the dishes and mopping the floor" and not "You are doing nothing in the house while I have to cook, clean and do the dishes";
Say "Let us agree on the timings when you will watch your favourite TV program and when I will watch mine" and not "You monopolise the TV remote and don't allow me to watch my programs".
There is nothing more insidious and harmful to a relationship than a blame-game. When you blame, you are personalising the problem instead of dealing with the problem as a common one. "Separating the person from the problem" is a negotiation technique propounded by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their seminal work "Getting to Yes'. It works as well in a domestic relationship as it does in a cross-border corporate negotiation.
Fifthly we need to learn to APOLOGIES. Saying sorry to someone close to you, specially a spouse, is sometimes perceived as demeaning. We don't like to say sorry as we feel that it places us in a vulnerable position. But that is exactly the purpose of an apology. When you hurt your partner, you are in a position of power and your partner is in a vulnerable position. A genuine apology reverses the position. And that is how, though it does not undo the wrong, an apology miraculously heals the wound caused by the wrong. Nic Tavuchis, on the paradox of apology, states: "an apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do."
"Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land" reads a nursery rhyme. Self-restraint and empathy are those little grains that make for strong and abiding relationships and these relationships are the building blocks of peace and harmony in society.
Views Are Personal Only.
(A.J. Jawad is a mediator and trainer accredited with the Mediation and Conciliation Project Committee of the Supreme Court of India and ADR ODR International, UK and is the co-Founder and trustee of Foundation for Comprehensive Dispute Resolution, Chennai.)