If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this – humans need each other. Even those of us who enjoy alone time and appreciate life’s current slower-paced version will agree, being confined to a mere handful of face-to-face connections 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is not optimal.
Our prevailing human need to connect during a global crisis has launched the innovative concept of a Pod –– doing life with a select group of people (without masks and social-distancing). The Pod has undoubtedly been a saving grace for many neighborhoods and communities worldwide these past several months.
But with summer’s departure and the weather growing colder, we must navigate a myriad of new (and unknown) variables, including flu season, school reopenings, and an increased need to be indoors. Collectively, these challenges have the potential to influence both our health and hearts. How do we measure the risks and gains in each potential scenario? How do we negotiate and have honest communication with friends and family concerning social distancing ––find the sweet spot between connected and safe?
For guidance on how to do the Pod-life well, we’ll invite some leading couple therapy models and researchers to be our mentors. As a couples therapist who utilizes these methods regularly, I’m confident we can apply segments of these approaches to foster a viable and indispensable Pod experience. Which may be the exact antidote we need in this ever-changing world.
A Step-by-Step Guide to mastering life within the Pod
1. Create a Contract
Many people fail to explicitly discuss what constitutes the bulk of everyday relational life with friends and family. How often do we do things like getting together for coffee or texting or merely checking-in? How do we best communicate our news or accomplishments or plain-old, regular days – phone, Instagram, or in-person? And, how do we reach out for support when we’re really struggling?
Stan Tatkin, a relationship guru, encourages us to get things out in the open by creating a contract or a list of agreements with the people closest to us. This approach ensures clarity, understanding, and genuineness in the exchange if we are honest about what we need and want.
The brilliant result of both making agreements with one another and keeping our end of the bargain is secure functioning ––feeling seen and known in a mutually supportive way. Secure functioning in the Pod characterizes a safe environment – a refuge – where we live as an interdependent system. From this vantage point, the Pod relationships exist within the governance of our agreements with one another.
Examples of making agreements or a contract with fellow Pod members might include:
Who we agree to spend face-to-face time with
How we commit to wearing masks with anyone other than our agreed-upon individuals
When we will distance ourselves from other Pod-members if we are feeling ill or experiencing problematic symptoms.
Beyond COVID safety and protocols, our contracts might also include how often we gather, where we do so, and what we do when that happens – Games? Gossip? Netflix-binging? We might agree to weekly potlucks (Pod-lucks!) or sharing babysitting with fellow Pod-members so that we can get a break from these days of relentless responsibilities.
Lastly, since your agreement(s) are essential, we encourage you to make it formal. Set a date to meet with your pod-to-be, grab some pens and paper, write up your contract, and have everyone sign it ––even the kids!
Getting clear and keeping agreements will begin the necessary and critical process of building trust within the Pod.
2. Build Trust
Couples therapists assess trust from the start because we know how critical it is to human relationships’ sustainability and success. This sentiment also rings true for the Pod concept. Without trust, engagement and collaboration quickly disintegrate ––taking the Pod and its inhabitants down with it.
In John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, we encounter two load-bearing walls essential to a relationship’s long-term stability. These walls are commitment and trust.
But how do we cultivate trust within the Pod? According to Gottman, we do this with small things often. Small and incremental steps marked by consistently showing up, keeping your word, and displaying genuine interest in other Pod-members are the ticket to ensuring trust’s constructive evolution. The result of this will be a deepened sense of togetherness and collective goodwill.
Gottman terms these occasions of trust-building, sliding door moments – seemingly insignificant flashes of time, pivotal to any relationship’s well-being. When we make the deliberate choice to connect, understand, and appreciate one another consistently, we encourage and champion an essential ingredient for any authentic community to thrive.
My all-time favorite job was the role of counselor at an overnight camp in magnificent Alaska (yes, it gets warm there in Summertime!). I worked at this camp for three consecutive years during my late adolescence and fell in love with the people and experiences. I was far from home and didn’t see my friends or family for the entirety of my summers. But the camaraderie I encountered with my fellow camp counselors was unforgettable.
People I’d never met and would likely never see again became like family in a very brief time. We spent days together and relied on one another because we were all each other had. Being a camp counselor is fun, but it’s also exhausting – working with kids all day and night and being responsible for them 24/7 is no small task. Each of us required unwavering support from our fellow counselors.
We did life together. We were there for each other on our good and bad days. Ultimately, we built trust with one another in a million little ways, and it paid off.
I remember a particularly tricky cabin of campers one summer week. These campers were cute, but they were also loud, pranky, and not good listeners – a perfect formula for counselor burnout. What got me through that week was my “camp family” who listened to me, wrote me encouraging notes, and cheered me on (and cheered with me when the parents picked up those little rascals that long-awaited Saturday morning!).
3. Sign up for vulnerability
Bréne Brown, a prominent researcher in gutsy topics like vulnerability, shame, and courage, describes an anatomy of trust that must be recognized and refined for relationships to succeed. With trust in mind, she handily breaks things down into the acronym, BRAVING.
Boundaries: we respect others boundaries and are clear about our own
Reliability: we can count on each other
Accountability: we take responsibility to make things right when things go awry
The Vault: we only communicate our own experiences and feelings and let others speak for themselves; we keep things confidential for others
Integrity: we are who we say we are; we live according to our values
Non-judgment: we honor our needs and the needs of others without judgment
Generosity: we believe that each member of the Pod is doing the best they can; we give one another the benefit of the doubt
If we value BRAVING within the Pod, we have to choose our foxhole inhabitants wisely from the start. Ask yourself if the Pod-members you’re considering are BRAVE people who won’t back down when Pod-life goes sideways, or someone gets sick or stops keeping their agreements. Read this list – a recipe for trust – and decide if YOU will be that person, too.
BRAVING is not a task for the faint of heart. This type of commitment requires mega buy-in and an ability to see things through when times get tough. Because let’s face it, conflict will arise and when it does, we’re going to want to know what to do about it.
4. Prepare for bumps in the road
The final step to getting the hang of Pod-life involves understanding the role of conflict, not eradicating or avoiding it, but to manage it in a beneficial and connective way. Brent Atkinson, the founder of the Pragmatic-Experiential Model (PEX) of couple therapy, prescribes a set of skills needed to react effectively when disagreements arise.
He divides these skills into two parts: the “Openness and Flexibility” Skills and the “Standing Up” Skills.
Within the Openness and Flexibility skills, Atkinson invites us to:
Not jump to conclusions,
Look for something in the other’s viewpoint that makes sense,
Identify what needs, values, and worries might be lurking under the surface,
And, assure the person you conflict with that you are keeping a flexible and open mind while asking them to do the same.
And, when the Openness and Flexibility skills don’t cut the mustard, we can utilize Atkinson’s Standing Up skills, which include:
A non-judgmental stance,
Asking for more open-mindedness and flexibility,
Considering other reasons why the person is upset,
Temporarily distancing yourself,
Not making a big deal that you had to,
Trying again later,
And, if all else fails, refusing to continue “business as usual” until the other is willing to find common ground.
I’ve had lots of experiences with conflict within community life – both successful and disastrous. The time’s conflict has been constructive, and generative has always included all parties’ willingness to be open, flexible and gracious collectively. I don’t think there’s a way around this for authentic connection.
In this COVID climate, we live out our values, and our beliefs differ from one another in a myriad of ways. Some of us haven’t been inside a restaurant in over eight months or hugged our mom ––not even once. We haven’t gone to a single person’s house for a visit. Others have attended indoor weddings, traveled to Disneyworld, and continued life as usual.
To do the Pod-life well, we have to find like-minded people with whom we can build trust, create agreements, practice vulnerability, and effectively manage conflict for the long-haul. Because there isn’t an end in sight, now might be the perfect time to consider such a venture.
Couple therapy and relationship models teach us a great deal about how to coexist within a community. Knowing how to generate trust and how to cultivate it once you have it are crucial. Taking the time to discern and create agreements will bypass stress down the road. Moreover, choosing vulnerability with one another will produce the qualities needed to face the inevitable trials and experience the sure-fire joys that life within the Pod will provide even when it’s tough.
Click Here for your Discussion Guide – How to form a Pod and keep it going strong
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