A User’s Guide to Managing Social Distance
This is Part Six of a seven-part series published over seven consecutive weeks.
So how can we manage social distance, especially when we wish to be closer than does the other person?
Desiring, Not Insisting
Desiring to be close to a friend, family member or intimate partner is OK—in fact, it’s a sublime representation of two inherent characteristics of ourselves we never want to lose.
First, our desire is a manifestation of the love and caring we possess deep within.
Second, it is a representation of our persistent belief—etched into our psyche over a lifetime, if we are fortunate, by a loving family or a few genuinely caring friends—in our ability to develop healthy, meaningful relationships.
We never want to lose this desire for intimacy and connection with others. Why? Because our nurturance of this feeling enables us to step out of our home and form meaningful connections with others. It gets us into the ring.
All of the above notwithstanding, for the reasons I have shared earlier in this article, insisting on this closeness is an entirely different matter and should be avoided at all costs.
We can choose, then, to persist in our attempts to develop the relationships we need in our lives without allowing our persistence to become insistence. Achieving this delicate balance is not easy.
Why? Because it is true that, in the present moment, we need other people who are genuine and authentic and reciprocate our efforts to develop a relationship.
Yet it is also true that we have to let go of our symbolic mental representations of how close a specific person should be to us at any point in time.
Instead, we can be simultaneously grateful for those who reciprocate and demonstrate their effort to be present in our lives and graceful with those who do not make such effort. We can treasure those who respond to our social overtures and steer clear of the rest.
I’ll Reinforce Yours if You Reinforce Mine
We create a CMSR (Compassionate, Meaningful, Sustainable Relationship) when we show we care and they respond. Then, in no particular order—keeping a minute-by-minute scorecard is one of the worst enemies of the CMSR— they show they care and we respond, we show a bit more and they respond again, and so on.
This continual, slow upbuilding of mutual disclosure, vulnerability and acceptance is the only path I know to creating a CMSR. It is not for the faint of heart. (Many choose screens or pets instead—which have been configured from microchips and wild animals, respectively, to meet our needs without complaint and to stand by us independent of our character.)
In our modern era of mass distractions, declining empathy and interpersonal polarization, dedicating yourself to developing CMSRs (with other human beings) has become a more challenging path to travel. Nonetheless, research—including the longest-running study on happiness I’m aware of—converges on CMSRs as the only path to long-term well-being and contentment in life. The increasingly daunting, digitally-mediated obstacles notwithstanding, we must persist on this path.
Transforming How We Manage Social Distance
Later that evening, I asked Alex how it went at school.
“Chris noticed I was ignoring him, and he didn’t like it. In the first recess, he asked me to play with him, and I said I wanted to read my book,” Alex told me. “In the second recess, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s play!’ and I did.”
The next evening, his report was more of the same. “Chris and I agreed that we would meet at the treehouse. Instead, I went over to Dylan’s ‘base’ where he leads those other kids. I thought Chris would be there, because that’s what he did before. But he wasn’t there.”
“Where was he?” I asked.
“So I went looking for him and went to the treehouse. There he was, waiting for me,” Alex said with a huge grin on his face.
Be the Mirror
I used this opportunity to talk with Alex about mirroring.
“It’s not just about how you feel about someone else,” I shared, “but also about how they feel. If you want to play and the other person doesn’t, and you keep saying, ‘I want to play. Come on!’ then they will become tired of you.”
“So how can I know how to act toward them?” Alex asked with a genuine curiosity that most adults, including myself, have lost on some level and would do well to recapture.
“You want to be like a mirror. You decide how to act based on how they act. If the other person is being a good friend, you can do the same. If they aren’t, ignore them. If they are being nice, then you be nice. If they seem like they don’t want to play, then leave them alone. Play with some other kids or read a book.”
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.