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Circles in Our Every Day: Deepening Connections in the Time of Social Distancing

Professor Meenakshi Chhabra, a specialist in peace and conflict studies, brings us her thoughts on developing and maintaining connections during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Keeping Connected Through Circle Spaces

Circles can build, restore, and deepen connections. A circle orientation puts relationships at the center. It’s a way of being. Even in this time of “social distancing,” technology and intention can help communities become closer than they were before.

As a conflict-transformation scholar-practitioner for over two decades, I seek to bring circles into my day-to-day personal and professional life. Circle processes happen in person. In the wake of the pandemic, I have been adapting these to the virtual platform.

In the last month, I have facilitated several circle spaces one-on-one, with family, at work meetings, in exchanges with friends, at virtual lunches with colleagues, during a “chill hour” with students (my first), and at some group facilitations.

In every interaction, I am being intentional about setting time to check-in. It's a part of the agenda. During these virtual meetings, I have found myself in students’ homes. Some were back with their families, and some were living alone in rental spaces. At times, family, children, and pets would walk by on the screen or join the work meeting. We offer each other friendly smiles and waves. This is our new normal.

A student shared about how she's trying to come to terms with the news of the postponement of Commencement this year. She is the first to graduate in her family. Another talked about being laid off from work, yet another about the loss of an internship opportunity. One of them showed the art she now had the time to make and was grateful for the conversations she was having with her siblings.

    As a collective, we are addressing the malaise of isolation while being in the midst of it. We are reaching out and connecting in a profound way.
    Dr. Meenakshi Chhabra, Professor, International Higher Education Graduate Program

    I also heard from parents of young children struggling between childcare and work commitments. They spoke about the pressure to produce at work. At the same time, they said they were comforted by the support they were receiving. An anxious colleague expressed her fear of contracting the virus and her worry about the health of her family.

    Others appreciated the slowing down. Not having to commute to work every day. Getting that extra sleep. Finding the time to quiet their mind. And being able to wear pajamas to work! 

    They acknowledge each other by words, chat messages, emojis, and hand gestures. People offer music, performance, readings, or anything to support.

    What I Am Discovering

    We are being real, and this is what I am discovering:

    • We are seeking collective spaces to connect through our shared experience with the pandemic— both the challenges and the possibilities.
    • When we say “How are you doing?” we actually mean “How are you really doing?”
    • We present our experiences honestly, authentically, and with vulnerability.
    • We listen deeply to each other.
    • We acknowledge each other’s experiences without judgment.
    • We are cultivating an expanded ability to empathize.
    • We display more appreciation and patience with ourselves and others.
    • We are redefining the idea of support to include the community.
    • When is the last time we invited a colleague or a student to our home? Through these virtual spaces, we are hosting them now and also being invited to their homes.
    • We are building a genuine sense of community in our workspaces.

    Paradoxically, in this time of social distancing, human connections are stronger now than before. Unknowingly, as a collective, we are addressing the malaise of isolation while being in the midst of it. We are reaching out and connecting in a profound way. I believe our trust in human beauty is sustaining and guiding our impulses. Or perhaps our relationship to human beauty is being strengthened by the courage and authenticity with which we are interacting with each other in these times.

    This is what circle cultures can do, whether in person or virtually. And I hope when this is over, we never forget how to be in circle, how to be in connection. Because we will continue to need each other on the other side.

    Strengthening Your Circle

    Here are some suggested prompts that can help strengthen your circle, no matter where you are.

    • How are you experiencing the present situation in its challenges and possibilities?
    • What is helping you stay grounded? What is coming in the way?
    • What is your source of resilience/hope/joy in these times?
    • What is of most concern for you at this time? Who are you most concerned about at this time?
    • What is one response from you to this situation that surprised you/or you are proud of?
    • What makes you laugh in these times? Where do you find humor in these times? What’s your favorite meme?
    • What support are you receiving? What support do you need? 
    • How are you experiencing or sharing community care? 
    • What is one thing you can do for yourself and others in the coming days?