How to have ‘difficult conversations’ during the Covid-19 pandemic

Protective mask for Coronavirus.

The Covid-19 crisis makes the skill of intelligent listening, and pragmatic problem-solving ever more important. On the one hand, the global nature of the pandemic can unite us in learning from each other as an international community (see, for example, this video by data ethicist, Jeremy Howard) but can, on the other hand, polarise us, such as when political leaders demonise others in presenting their nations as under siege from a ‘Chinese virus’.  Our resilience as a community requires a capacity to sustain  ‘difficult conversations’.

SOAS’s recent (pre-lockdown) ‘Introduction to Mediation Workshop’, which I facilitated with Hiro Aragaki (Loyola University and visiting SOAS professorial fellow), brought students and staff together to explore some of the skills required in resolving conflict in a collaborative setting. While the simulation that we used concerned a dispute in an academic community, the skills required in listening and reflecting before we speak are also relevant to community disputes between noisy neighbours, separating couples or even the painful decisions that relatives may face in end-of-life care for their loved ones. 

During the workshop we used the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ game (Flood and Dresher, 1950) to illustrate the importance of communication in preventing unintended consequences. The paradigm involves an imaginary situation where two confederate prisoners are held separately by the police and may either co-operate to receive a lenient sentence of two years, or defect by giving evidence against each other: in the latter case, the prisoner defecting receives a reduced sentence of one year and the prisoner betrayed receives a severe sentence of 4 years: if both betray each other they receive three years each. Without adequate communication, and trust both prisoners, acting rationally, may end up in a situation that is the worst outcome for both of them.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario illustrates the way in which mediation may break such an impasse. Many social iterations, including military escalation and the paradox of the global commons – where individuals, by pursuing their self interest in maximising individual self interest (over grazing leading to a depleted commons) where they all lose out – display a structure of this kind. There is a tension between individual and group benefit especially where communication breaks down. Recent examples of panic buying and food shortages, for example, are probably the result of inadvertent stockpiling, with everyone buying more than they usually do out of a self-fulfilling fear of shortages.    

Empty shelves illustrating hoarding and self-fulfilling aims rather than common goals.

‘Active listening’ is at the core of good communication. When having a difficult conversation it is not enough to simply hear the words that are spoken: it is vital to listen attentively to their emotional timbre and the subtle feelings, interests and nuances of value which are central to the positions that they articulate. Creative communication requires the cognitive empathy of walking in the shoes of an interlocutor and understanding what makes them tick. How we listen to ‘the other’, including the way we ask questions, or pause and reflect, influences their response to us: a skillful listener enables ‘the other’ to hear themselves and negotiate their ‘stuck situation’ in a new way.

Principled negotiation (Fisher and Ury, 1981) involves approaching  a problem as partners rather than adversaries, focusing on interests rather than positions, and insisting on objective criteria, building trust, and identifying options for mutual gain. Developing the skills of ‘active listening’ enables us to make complex decisions in an intelligent way and find solutions that accommodate differing priorities. 

These principles apply even where power differentials are extreme. When I worked for the British Council in South America, a colleague and her partner, were held at gunpoint by FARC guerrillas, while they were climbing in Colombia. It was an edgy situation where the young men who burst into her tent were jumpy, and she feared, trigger-happy. She had little money and her only valuable possessions were expensive photographic equipment. Their assailants were angry and she sensed, afraid. By building a relationship in understanding their needs and values, relating to them ‘as a mother’ (she explained to me) rather than as a victim, she was able to escape safely and could take with her the spools of undeveloped film. Had her partner, an aggressive and rather ‘macho’ character, taken the lead, the result might not have been the same. While the cameras were of value to the guerillas, the film of her expedition was not!           

In a workshop on advanced mediation that I participated in as part of Harvard’s ‘Program on Negotiation’ (summer 2019), we explored how these principles can apply in facilitating negotiation in multi-party disputes. Public policy mediator, Susan Podziba led us in exploring how people with clashing interests and values can bond to resolve controversial policy conflicts. Skilfully facilitated conversation between opponents with diametrically opposed views – where they are genuinely willing to listen – can lead to a bond in a ‘civic fusion’ that is more powerful than what divides them. A key to this is ‘keeping the substance in motion’, ensuring that uncomfortable facets of policy are not swept under the carpet and that blocking coalitions are not allowed to harden into permanent barriers to agreement.   

The psychological dimensions of this process are equally relevant to building a collaborative culture in an organisation like SOAS ,where we depend on a partnership between teachers, learners and researchers. This is as true for employment relations as enabling principled debate on campus about controversial issues such as how we should respond to the government’s ‘Prevent’ policy, or divisive issues such as Israel/Palestine. Mediation understands communication as, in essence, reciprocal. Unless we are prepared to listen, why should we be listened to?   

Image of a globe to illustrate global nature of pandemic.

It is a strange paradox that the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing us together in new forms of community at the same time as dividing us geographically. Failure to communicate across difficult barriers may lead to the collapse of supply chains, cultural polarisation and 100,000s of unnecessary deaths. If, however, we are willing to listen to the uncomfortable truths of the impact of inequality on life chances and the differential between national health services in saving lives, the pandemic may make us more aware of our global interdependency and become a facilitator of creative change. 

At the level of our SOAS community, Culture@soas provides a forum for identifying and fostering ‘collegiality’ that will help create a more considerate and civil community, one open to the ‘difficult conversations’ in listening to the uncomfortable voices of those who feel excluded. As a contribution to this change, I am working with Kimberly Hovish (SOAS) to include mediation as a regular part of the process for resolving intractable disputes within the SOAS community. In helping to create a resilient and resourceful community, we will offer places to SOAS staff and students to audit the new LLM half unit on ADR that will be offered in autumn 2020.         

For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit

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