May 7, 2020

The fifth piece in our series of responses to prompt cards from our resource Navigating with Kindness comes from Managing Director and Executive Coach at Year One Consulting, Mary Ann le Lean (pictured).

Black and white portrait style photograph of Mary Ann le Lean.

Mary Ann chose to reflect on the prompt card “Take care of the relationships” which is pictured below, along with the following prompts:

How are you feeling, how are relationships working and how are you collaborating – perhaps on a day to day basis, at home, in your work, or as a volunteer?

What kind of adjustments are you making to accommodate people’s needs in this new landscape? Are you making room for diverse interests, points of view and skills? Are you or others being more generous with time, encouragement, chats or other sorts of support and connectedness? Are you experiencing more generosity, encouragement, support etc?

The "take care of the relationships card" which shows an illustrated pot of tea being poured into a cup with a saucer. There is an illustrated mountain in the background.

Mary Ann wrote the following blog in response, in which she takes some time to reflect on how friendships and relationships have evolved over the years…


As we physically withdraw from one another, hoping to protect our bodies from a new, deadly illness, our relationships with others have been thrown into a focus that we don’t often acknowledge. We are missing those whom we long to see, whose availability, perhaps, we used to take for granted. We are collectively acknowledging isolation, and our fear of dying, in ways that are normally parcelled away and kept out of sight.

I’m saying “we” as if my experience is everyone’s. I’ll stop that. All I can do is hold myself up as a window or a mirror, and hope it helps you make sense of what’s happening with you too.

So….

As I physically withdraw myself from all but one of the people I love and admire, my relationships with others are thrown into a different and sharper focus. At the start of lockdown, my panic was about losing touch with people. I was relieved that I had gone to visit my Mum and sister in Yorkshire in March, visited my friend’s new house in Shropshire in February, and met friends in Manchester in January for a not-New Years’ Eve party. But I was sad that I hadn’t found time to follow up on all my Christmas card promises of catching up with university friends, and sad that I hadn’t gone to those drinks with a group of women I’d met locally after moving house.

While my work-life has continued pretty much uninterrupted – I work remotely and my clients are used to staying in touch without necessarily meeting in person – this pandemic has forced a restriction on how and when I can take care of my relationships outside work.

The only time I’ve paid attention to my personal relationships in the way that I’m doing now is after a trauma, or around every tenth birthday since I turned 20. At those times, in grief and in celebration, I’ve imagined how the people in my life would describe our relationship, questioned if I had done everything I could to be kind and supportive and true. And then I’d planned out what I needed to do to create or maintain kinder, more supportive, truer relationships.

For me this takes work. I learned early on, in the school playground and at family gatherings with distant relatives, that daily habits, family ties and social habits are a good starting point to build authentic and two-way relationships, but they’re not enough to keep them going. And I know that when I’m stressed my default is to withdraw rather than reach out.

In my twenties, with limited money and barely any social life outside work, I learned the hard way that without regular catch ups, conversations and (in those days) letters, some relationships quickly slide away, whereas others last with only the rarest of contact – those where we would meet up or call, start off with an honest explanation for the lapse, and then pick up pretty much where we left off. I also figured out that I was OK with letting some relationships slide – it seemed that this was better than spreading myself too thinly across the relationships with the friends and family I cared the most about, and way better than staying in touch with people out of habit rather than warmth.

My thirties were a decade full of joy and grief, success and fear. I had to work much harder to take care that my friendships survived the differences between us – like the difference between choosing to have children or not, or the differences between having steady or precarious incomes. Some relationships fell away, most didn’t. Everyone got email (even Mum) and that helped a lot – but I’d still write letters or send a postcard when I could. I made more effort to host social gatherings that didn’t cost much money (but still totally arranged expensive ones when the credit card or overdraft had space!). I made regular Sunday family phone calls a thing. And I set up a birthday book that (to this day) prompts me to send cards and presents around the world.

New ways of keeping in touch came into the world during my forties. Texting became something you did even if it wasn’t just an apology for running late. I could see what friends were doing on social media, I could set up chat groups for seemingly endless sub-groups of friends and family. The personal visits dropped away a little, the phone calls definitely decreased. Friends moving further away meant that I dabbled in the odd video call, previously only used in business settings.

I also became gratefully aware that the relationships I had with friends and family were in good shape. A niece or nephew would reach out, unprompted, for advice. My sisters would all respond perfectly to a sad WhatsApp message when I was weeping with frustration at a setback. These relationships were strong, reliable and dependable. But they were also grounded in an older version of myself, and I didn’t necessarily want to be that person all the time.

I realised then that I hadn’t made much effort at all to create any new relationships. I realised too, with the dread of the first day at a new school, that I’d forgotten how. It took quite a few false starts, and lots of courage for me to keep looking out for new friendship opportunities. Once I’d reminded myself to apply the same principles I do at work – listen more than talk, place yourself in others’ shoes, assume that people’s intentions are good unless absolutely proven otherwise – new relationships started to form.

And now my physical world has shrunk so drastically, I’m hugely grateful for the multiple channels that I can use to keep the back and forth going. Without the back and forth, I know from past experience that relationships will wither. I am taking care to keep in touch, to reach out, to send a message with no pressure to reply. To remind the people I love and care for, that I do love and care for them. I’m finding telephone and video calls are the best at making me feel connected – but I know that Mum hates video calls so we still phone, email and write, while my sister, on night shift, can’t talk during the day so social media is our first port of call.

So here I am again, having just had my 50th birthday, in a whole world of grief and celebration, but this time in physical isolation. I’m once again making a concerted effort to take care of the relationships that matter the most. The family ones that are based on love, the old friendships that are based on trust and confidences, and the emerging friendships that will help shape my future. And whether it’s a phone call, a funny card, a text or a juddery video call, my guiding principles will be to reach out rather than withdraw, and to focus on keeping my relationships kind, supportive and true.

  1. Loved the way you reminded me about the various modes of communication, and the fact that some friendships are so strong regardless of how much time lapses. Also, how important it is to let some friendships go.

    Maria

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