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Learn & Practice

Well-Being Tip: Fostering Healthy Connections During Divisive Times

By Andreia Esteves

In this week’s Well-Being Tip, guest author, Andreia Esteves reports on how to use Connection for healthy relationships.

Photo by Dario Valenzuela on Unsplash

The second pillar in the Healthy Minds Framework for well-being, Connection, involves nurturing healthy relationships by trying to understand everyone’s unique perspective.  Simple as it may be in theory, during divisive times, Connection may seem difficult to work with. How do you interact with someone with kindness and compassion? Should you try to find a middle ground, or agree to disagree? In today’s article, Healthy Minds Trainer & Program Specialist Stephanie Wagner shows you how you can use Connection (and the other three pillars, Awareness, Insight and Purpose) to foster supportive relationships in your life.  

Start with Kindness and Compassion

According to Stephanie Wagner, NBC-HWC certified wellness coach, we can think of kindness and compassion as “two-sides of the same coin.” While compassion would be our response to suffering and the underlying motivation to find relief from suffering; kindness manifests itself as an orientation towards warmth and care for ourselves and others. The principle behind compassion and kindness is the same, and it tells us that, deep down, we all have the same desires. We all want to be happy and free from suffering. Yet, in relationships in which there are differences, it’s sometimes easy to forget this. “Normally what we do is to focus on the differences (…) which can create an obstacle to connect,” says Wagner. 

So, what can you do when you’re in conflict with somebody? Orient yourself towards similarities instead of differences. By recognizing the shared common humanity you have with someone, you can begin to tune-in more to the things you both have in common and understand that, even though their opinion might be wildly different from yours it is still coming from a shared place. 

Choose Being Responsive Instead of Reactive

When someone has a very strong opinion different from our own there is a natural tendency to shut down and stop listening. What can you do to change this pattern?  Remain connected: be aware of when you start shutting down and choose to be responsive instead of reactive. 

According to Wagner, when you choose to remain open in conversation, “it allows you to respond to this person in a way that’s more patient and kind, and from a place in which it’ll be better received.” This can be a game-changer; even when you disagree it allows you to craft your message in a way that creates an opening. Shutting down doesn’t lead to change, but understanding can flourish when you remain aware and open. Awareness (skills associated with being present) and Purpose (skills associated with values and motivations) together allow you to be more responsive instead of reactive. With Awareness, you can notice if you’re being propelled to have a negative reaction, and with Purpose you can respond from a place that’s important to you. 

Be Aware of Your Own Biases

To foster healthy connections it is also important to remember that we all have a natural bias in our relationships. As Wagner points out “we have groups of people that we consider to be our in-groups,” that is, people we have a natural affection toward—family, friends, and loved ones. Then, there are the people we put in an out-group—those who we don’t know, don’t agree with, or don’t like. Practicing connection allows you to step-by-step break down that bias that occurs in relationships, and widen your circle of care to include even people you don’t know or don’t like. 

Insight (skills associated with self-inquiry) also plays a key role here. When you question your own biases you start seeing that your beliefs are just beliefs. They’re driven by many different factors coming together, such as your socio-economic class, upbringing, race, or education. So next time you find yourself in a heated conversation, ask yourself: What do I believe to be true here? Is this actually true?

Establish Healthy Boundaries

When it comes to healing division, sometimes we need to establish healthy boundaries. When all else fails, it’s perfectly valid to remove yourself from a confrontational conversation. “I think where people get confused with compassion is that they think compassion is always soft. (…) But sometimes it needs to be fierce,” says Wagner. This means that the inner quality of compassion comes from that same motivation to ease suffering, but the outward expression can be fierce. It can mean holding healthy boundaries, stopping someone from perpetuating harm, or even stepping away. 

Practicing kindness and compassion can help you foster healthy connections during divisive times, and actually help you to communicate in a more effective way. There will always be difficulties and painful situations to deal with, but the more you practice meditation, the more you can change the way in which you relate to those situations, and difficulties in your life.

Get more practices and tips by downloading the Healthy Minds Program App, freely available thanks to the generosity of our donors wherever you get your apps.

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