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How to Talk to People Who Aren't Social Distancing — and Get Them to Listen

Shaming won't work. Experts say there's a right way to talk to the reluctant social distancer in your life

Large crowds gather near the Newport Beach Pier in Newport Beach on Saturday, April 25, 2020 to cool off during the hot weather despite the coronavirus pandemic.
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A friendly neighbor approaches you from across the street, wanting to chat. They’re not wearing a mask. As they get closer, you put up your hand, “We’re in a pandemic!” you say. “We should be social distancing!” You immediately see hurt in their eyes. They may even ignore your warning entirely and come closer.

In the age of COVID-19, following social distancing guidelines isn’t merely important — it’s life saving. But some people may not seem to get it. What can you say to them to change their behavior while keeping the peace?

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Here’s the right way to talk to people about social distancing and actually get them to listen, according to experts.

Understand the emotional needs of the non-distancer

Human beings are social creatures, and social distancing comes easier for some than others. Before judging or criticizing the non-distancer in your life, try to see things from their perspective, says Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist and author of the podcast “Coping With The New Normal of COVID-19.” Instead of assuming someone is ignorant, understand they might be lonely, or have some other emotional need driving their behavior. For many people, especially the elderly, yearning for companionship can override the fear of getting sick, even if they are high risk. For instance, despite grave warnings from health officials, she says many of her clients are dealing with grandparents popping up unexpectedly on their doorsteps, wanting to see their grandkids.

“My parents are actually both physicians, they're both high risk, they have comorbidities for this illness,” says Feliciano. “So, what [we said] is you come over, we meet you outside, we're all wearing masks, we're six feet apart, but we can see each other. And then also we make it a point to FaceTime them almost every day so they can see the kids and not feel so alone.”

Once you understand their emotional needs, Feliciano says, it’s much easier to figure out what to say to them. “What are they asking for and how can we meet that in a safe way where we are still social distancing, but we're still finding ways to connect better that are meaningful specifically to that person?” she says.

Have a script

If a non-distancer is driving you mad, remain calm, says Donald Cole, a marriage counselor and clinical director at The Gottman Institute. He says to begin the conversation with what he calls a “gentle start up.” These types of statements begin with “I” and focus on how you feel, rather than the “bad” behavior of the non-distancer. A good example would be: “Hey, I’m worried about getting you sick, can we please stand 6 feet apart?” Having a script of what you plan to say to people before they approach you is a great way to prevent awkwardness and hurt feelings, he says.

Even when we’re gentle, some people may still feel stung, says Cole. But it’s not helpful to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings, he says.

“Repair is always possible,” he says. “The reality is, most people in most relationships that have any duration, have somewhere along the line gotten their feelings hurt within that relationship. It's not fatal, we recover.”

Draw a hard line if necessary

Those we share our homes with, such as roommates and significant others, who refuse to socially distance or follow guidelines can be especially infuriating since they risk bringing the virus into our homes. But there are ways to deal with them, too. Again, you want to avoid lecturing them about their “bad” behavior, and communicate your feelings instead using “I” and “we” statements, say both Cole and Feliciano. For example, instead of telling them “You should be washing your hands when you come inside,” say something like: “I’m afraid of getting sick, can we both please make it a rule to wash our hands when we come inside?”

If your words are still falling on deaf ears, it’s time to draw a hard line between them and you, says Feliciano.

Here, you still want to use “I” language, she says — avoid focusing on their behavior as the problem. Instead, tell them you are going to distance yourself from them to keep yourself safe. Spend time in separate rooms, sleep in different beds, if possible, she says. But this should be a last resort. “Sometimes they need that hard line — that boundary in the relationship to help them understand how serious and important it is to their partner, and also maybe even give them a window into the fear or anxiety that they might be creating in their partner,” she says.

This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY:

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