Right now it feels hard to believe, but eventually the COVID-19 pandemic will end. What will last longer are the strained and hurt relationships the virus has created.
Mediation Services in Winnipeg launched a new training program on Dec. 6 to help people learn how to navigate difficult conversations and maintain relationships when they disagree.
The module-based course, “Covid Conversations: A roadmap to existing together with opposing views,” aims to help participants learn how to move from judgment to curiosity, identify common and incompatible interests in a conflict, engage in healthy argument and defuse anger.
“This specifically is a course that’s not about trying to change someone’s position; this is about finding a way to exist together, knowing that those positions are likely going to stay very similar to what they already are,” says Tony Friesen, Mediation Services’ training program coordinator. The tools in this workshop are part of a workshop it has been doing for years and is now applying to COVID-19’s specific circumstances.
The program’s asynchronous online format allows people to participate from anywhere at any time, as long as they speak English and have internet access. The content is equivalent to a one-day training session, but it can be read at any pace and revisited as often as needed during the 12 months participants have access to the material. When interviewed, Friesen said 100 people and counting were working through the webinar.
Mediation Services works at resolving conflict and transforming relationships with individuals, families and groups in the community and the justice system. The non-profit organization was started in 1979 as a project of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba.
Staff first developed “Covid Conversations” because, as mask and vaccine mandates set in, they saw polarization increasing and people struggling to talk about it.
“We were trying to respond to a community need because we knew we had some great tools, and if more people had these tools they’d be having more productive conversations,” says Christine Ens, executive director.
She and her team are seeing COVID-19’s effects show up prominently in their work with clients.
Friesen says: “We often talk about the straw that broke the camel’s back. People will have had conflict already, completely unrelated to COVID-19 and, instead of a straw, we have a whole new load of difficulties being thrown on top of an already difficult situation.”
Ens notes that, before COVID-19, we had good relationships with people with whom we disagreed, and that shouldn’t stop. But, with the pandemic, something changed. “Lots of us have found ourselves ‘othering’: ‘That person thinks that way so I’m not going to see them or talk to them or engage.’ I don’t think that’s a healthy way for us to live in society or to be neighbourly,” she says.
In the past, Mediation Services found ways of engaging with difference largely by avoiding it, says Janet Schmidt, associate trainer with Mediation Services and lead trainer for the course, who has worked in mediation for over 30 years, in multiple countries.
“The gift of COVID-19, one could argue, is that it kind of blew that up,” she says. “People who we shared a lot in common with suddenly were taking different decisions and had different understandings. We suddenly were surprised—somebody doesn’t think like us!”
Ens regularly hears about families being torn apart, and she says one person recounted to her how they felt isolated after losing their job and then their church. Ens says this is something the Mennonite church and Canadian Mennonite readers should be considering: “Are we as a church being as open and hospitable as we can be to this issue? . . . Are we doing this well?”
But people shouldn’t have to deal with these conflicts alone, she says. Resources like Mediation Services are available and teach skills anyone can learn. It’s okay to reach out for help.
So what are some key principles to maintaining good relationships, while disagreeing about COVID-19?
“One of the problems we get ourselves into is the difference between what I believe about COVID-19 and how we are going to coexist, says Schmidt. “Those are totally different conversations, which certainly inform each other but need to be handled separately.”
When sharing about COVID-19 beliefs, Ens says, “If the conversation can go deeper into why does this really matter to you . . . into some vulnerability, it has a bigger chance of success.”
When discussing how to coexist, people need to be willing to open their perspectives; it’s very hard to say “I changed my mind” or “I was wrong,” but it’s a key step. While doing this negotiating, try summarizing the other person’s words and asking them if you understood, before presenting your argument. Set up a time where no one is allowed to bring up COVID-19 and, instead, try to remember: What did you talk about four years ago, before this all started?
To learn more about “Covid Conversations,” visit bit.ly/3G2wcuH.
This article appears in the Feb. 7, 2022 print issue, with the headline “How to maintain relationships when there are disagreements.” Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at firstname.lastname@example.org.