Last week I ran a GritED Discovery and Networking Event about facing and dealing with unexpected turning points in life and work. The event had been planned for a couple of months and little did I know, how suddenly we would all face a huge and unexpected turning point together.

Like so many others, I moved the event online at short notice. The participants expressed their relief that the event was not cancelled, despite the fact that many had to pull out last minute, due to virtual emergency planning meetings at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, the discussion was dominated by the sudden events and focused on how to best communicate with each other during a time of physical distancing and emergency planning.
I decided to share the main points of the discussion with you here, framed by a couple of personal insights that have emerged since, as I reflected on what was said and shared last week.

The first point that occurred to me is that we all have been thrown out of our comfort zones without prior warning. Suddenly, we find ourselves in an unknown in-between space, in transit, without knowing when it is going to end and how things are going to be like, when we emerge from this unfamiliar space. Finding ourselves in this in-between space of not knowing is accompanied by uncertainty, anxiety, stress and a lot of other emotions, the strain of which cannot be underestimated. Yet, at the same time we are in a space that requires us to learn new skills. This ‘learning space’ is forcing us to adjust to the new-ness of the situation. As we move forward we learn to adapt, create new ways of doing things, become innovative and solution focused. The unusual part of this experience is the fact that we are all in this learning space together at the same time, while being asked to physically isolate.

The second point is that we ought to adopt a position of good will with each other, because we are all in this in-between, liminal, learning space together. Like never before, we have the opportunity to fill in the blank page together. We can learn from and, more importantly, with each other, while we navigate this uncomfortable space. This will allow us to transcend the discomfort and step out of it much stronger and more confident, as individuals, as communities and as a society.
What do I mean with good will? There have been many calls for kindness – with ourselves and others – over the past couple of weeks. Good will, in my view, incorporates this call for kindness with a suspension of judgement and granting each other a level of trust going forward. I believe that this can and should be the foundation for engaging in this learning process together. It includes the re-negotiation of boundaries and rules, ways of interacting and communicating as well as how we manage expectations.
I am not saying that we should adopt a blind faith approach. On the contrary, we need to keep our eyes and all our other senses wide open, applying an inquisitive and open-minded approach to the situations we experience going forward.

This strange space we find ourselves in compels us to take stock, re-adjust, learn, and try out new things, to be unafraid to make mistakes and admit to feeling vulnerable. This is a huge challenge for all of us. By adopting a good will attitude combined with an open-minded, non-judgemental and inquisitive approach, we acknowledge the challenges that we all are facing right here and now. And there are many: From the emotional turmoil that accompanies the uncertainty of the situation; the loss of work; drastic changes in working patterns; being cooped up at home without the usual escapes (gyms, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, concerts etc.); sharing a confined space and a limited number of devices with each other; feeling lonely due to loved-ones being physically distanced to the immense pressures on our time (home-schooling, childcare, back-to-back conference calls). All of this is forcing us to make difficult decisions about what is and what is not possible.

I believe that, since we are all in this wide-open space together, we can grant each other trust and suspend judgement, while we navigate our way through these stroppy waters. Sure, trust needs to be earned, but in this particular situation, we all have to re-earn that trust and as such be mindful of all the additional pressures we are enduring currently.

Against the backdrop of my personal reflection, here are the main points that were discussed and shared at the GritED Discovery and Networking Event:

  • Talk, talk, talk with each other;
  • Listen actively to each other with an open-mind;
  • Keep checking in with each other regularly;
  • Make sure to re-negotiate the frequency and duration of the check-in and vary the form of the check-in;
  • Keep emails to a minimum;
  • Re-assess expectations and re-negotiate ways to manage expectations;
  • Recognise that some business has to continue, meaning that some tasks still need to be completed and deadlines need to be kept;
  • Acknowledge and remind ourselves that all professional interactions are based on a contract that defines roles and responsibilities for all parties involved;
  • Have direct, open conversations in a courteous, non-judgemental and compassionate manner (no need to be aggressive);
  • Create a space for ‘water cooler’ conversations, i.e. informal gatherings to replace the conversations that tend to happen around the water cooler, coffee machine or kettle;
  • Be aware of the fact that we tend to base our responses on our own lived experiences and that these may not always be what others are looking for, or expecting from us;
  • Acknowledge that we are all different with different needs. For instance, some may appreciate frequent contact, while others may work better with a more hands-off approach;
  • Acknowledge and accept the emotions that will arise during this strange time;
  • Allow space for those emotions – when necessary take time out and pick up the conversation at a later time;
  • Slow down to become more self-aware of our own feelings and reactions;
  • Breathe – not just in, but make sure to exhale. A longer out breath slows down our heart rate and has a calming influence;
  • Accept that we will all have good and bad days – now much more so than usual;
  • Notice the signs: make an effort to listen to our bodies (where do the emotions sit in our bodies?) as well as picking up signs in others (sharp intake of breath, raised eye-brows, frowning, different tones of voice, the speed in which we talk, or similar) and also how we react to these signs;
  • Ask for support: speak to someone you trust; maybe to someone who is not a family member, friend or colleague to get a more objective perspective (could be a mentor, trusted acquaintance, coach, counsellor, therapist, or similar). There are also plenty of helplines offering support;
  • Be, or learn to be, mindful (there are a lot of free online mindfulness training programmes available), from mindful meditation to movement/exercise to massaging the palm of our hand with our thumb or placing the palm of or hand onto our heart for a calming effect;
  • Be kind to yourself and others and combine this with being grateful for the small things/moments of joy. For some it helps to take a note of these at the end of each day.

I find these points useful in a time when we have to get used to living with a high level of uncertainty. In essence, we all agreed that whatever we do from here on needs to be recalibrated and balanced regularly. In addition, I cannot emphasise enough that we are all individuals and as such we are all different. It calls for a level of awareness of ourselves and others in order to spot the nuances in behaviour, which may hint to how we are coping with the pressures in this challenging time.

In summary, I would like to end with a call to action for all of us:
Let us be alone together.
Let us learn from, and with, each other.
Let us explore this scary, wondrous and strange space that we inhabit at the moment together.
Let us support each other in a non-judgemental, compassionate way.
Let us be open minded and inquisitive in order to transcend the fear, anxiety and uncertainty we are experiencing, so that we can re-emerge feeling stronger, more confident, and more attuned with ourselves and others.

Because never before has it been so important to be alone together.

Please note that all the points that we discussed at the GritED Discovery and Networking Event are based on our lived experiences that we shared with each other. They are not exhaustive and there is plenty more advice and guidance available on how to deal with these unforeseen and unprecedented times from other sources.