Talk to me!

A guide to effective and healthy communication during quarantine


“sunday morning’s parallel lives.” photo of Alexandra Levey, Olivia Reich and Hannah Sudaria by Eloise Kelsey.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March, some SFSU students have moved out of the city and now live with their families while others quarantine with roommates, significant others or alone. With the combination of political unrest, an uncertain future and our new lives in lockdown, tensions can rise between housemates or significant others. But learning how to communicate in a healthy and effective way can help resolve conflicts faster or avoid them in the first place, and ultimately help create an environment where everyone can coexist peacefully.

“In high tension situations, when feelings are hard to manage, especially anger and rage, we can sometimes say or do things that can hurt the other person. If we don’t learn to undo the hurt, this can cause resentment in the relationship,” says Thien Pham, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco who specializes in working with first and second generation immigrants. “Unresolved resentment may worsen future conflicts. The quarantine can add to the tensions that may already exist in strained relationships.” 

Whether or not you’re having a tough time with the people around you during quarantine, take a look at these tips for healthy and effective communication. They just might make the next tough conversation a little more manageable. 


Tips for communication 


More empathy, less sympathy 

Joe Zarate-Sanderlin, they/them pronouns, is a San Francisco marriage and family therapist. They recommend this video where research professor and best-selling author, Brene Brown, talks about the importance of creating genuine empathic connections through showing vulnerability. Zarate-Sanderlin points out that empathy never includes an “at least” statement. 

A statement like “I know you feel bad about this situation, but at least…” can come across as minimizing someone’s feelings. But more importantly, Zarate-Sanderlin says whatever follows “at least” doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s still a problem and it’s bothering the person. 

Effective empathic communication, according to Zarate-Sanderlin is “understanding what it’s like to be in your shoes and conveying that back to you.” Where empathy builds intimacy and trust, sympathy “really sounds condescending.” 


Don’t make assumptions 

Tracy Taris, a Santa Clarita, California marriage and family therapist, says a common mistake is assuming what the other person is trying to communicate and forming their responses based on this—usually wrong—assumption. 

“Communication hasn’t happened until the message sent is the message received,” she says. 

To avoid miscommunication Taris recommends repeating back exactly what you heard the other person say before responding. This is called active or reflective listening, and it gives everyone the chance to genuinely be on the same page. 

Say, for example, a housemate is upset because you ate something of theirs in the shared fridge —- Oops, it happens. Here’s what you could say: “I’m hearing that you’re upset because I used up the last of your oat milk in the fridge. Is that correct?” This statement allows the other person to verify what you heard. Then follow up with: “I’m sorry. What do you need me to do to fix this right now and how can we work together to avoid this conflict moving forward?”


Don’t get defensive 

Continuing with the previous example, it’s tempting to assume that the other person is attacking something about you other than just the oat milk, and it’s natural to get defensive when feeling attacked. But not being defensive goes hand in hand with not making assumptions. The key to not becoming defensive, Taris says, is to “guard against offense.” 

“Usually, when someone says something and we get offended, we want to defend that,” Taris says. “The minute you feel offense, you’re going to go into defensive mode and then communication is over.”

Taris’s best advice for avoiding conflict when feeling defensive is to put the feeling of offense aside for the duration of the conversation. Later, analyze within yourself why you felt offended. If, after analysis, the statement in question was legitimately offensive, then that’s the perfect opportunity for a separate conversation at a different time. 


Use nonviolent communication 

Nonviolent communication “gives us the tools and consciousness to understand what triggers us, to take responsibility for our reactions, and to deepen our connection with ourselves and others, thereby transforming our habitual responses to life,” according to BayNVC, a Bay Area organization dedicated to promoting the principles of nonviolent communication. It’s also a reliable technique to use when you’re starting the communication about a conflict. 

“People unknowingly use accusatory language in their communication, especially during times of high conflict. Shaming and blaming doesn’t resolve conflict. It makes it harder for the other person to empathize and truly listen to our needs,” Pham says.

Zarate-Sanderlin recommends using nonviolent communication with the people around you, especially if there’s conflict. 

“What it does is really take into account your needs and how to get those needs met, but in a way that is really centered on you,” they say. 

BayNVC says the three components of nonviolent communication are observations, feelings and needs. The aim is to describe what you’re reacting to as concretely as possible, describe the feelings being brought up and to be specific about your needs that must be met in order to remedy the situation. 

For example, Zarate-Sanderlin says nonviolent communication can be used to ask those around you for more empathy.

In that case, nonviolent communication could go something like this: “When you’re not empathic, I feel really frustrated because it seems like you’re not hearing me and what I need is for you to put down your phone and listen to me and understand where I’m coming from,” Zarate-Sanderlin says. 


Practice asking consent for conversations

While part of good communication is bringing up negative feelings in a constructive way and not putting off serious conversations, it’s not always the right call to have those conversations at the exact moment. Zarate-Sanderlin says to bring up serious conversations as soon as practical — not necessarily as soon as possible. 

It’s usually beneficial to save serious conversations for after everyone who needs to be involved has calmed down and had time to process their emotions, especially if they are angry. 

“I’m a big advocate of consent for conversation,” they say, “If I get your consent for that conversation, I’m probably going to have a better quality conversation.”

Asking consent for conversations doesn’t have to be hard either. According to Zarate-Sanderlin, it can be as simple as, “Hey, is this a good time to talk about this? Because this is really important to me.”

Pictured: AJ Glassman and Sidney Glassman by Alexandra Levey.

Despite all the extra uneasiness in the world, conflict is normal. Don’t be too hard on yourself or the people around you if some conflicts arise. 

“Conflict is a part of life, but it’s not something to completely avoid or to point out every single time. It’s a delicate balance of knowing the right time and place to address an issue that’s been bothering you,” Pham says. “Be gentle and ask for help rather than demand change.”

Good communication and habits not only help resolve conflicts, they can help avoid them in the first place. Remember to have regular check-ins with the people around you. Ask how they’ve been feeling and if there’s anything you can do to support them. Make sure to express your needs and wants as well. If you’re living with a significant other, it’s a good idea to schedule regular date nights. Finally, make sure you give yourself space and allow others to give themselves space too. 

If learning healthy communication is new for you and you find yourself falling into old habits, don’t worry. Good communication is a lifelong skill, and the earlier practice starts, the better.