Protecting relationships from lockdown

Willing to try new ideas for new times? Two systemic coaches, one a practising barrister, give advice on creating and supporting healthy household relationships during lockdown

By James Pereira QC and Zita Wu-Tulyahikayo


‘Important Notice. Directed to all inhabitants. YOUR MOTHER IS NOT HERE. The thing you see inside this room is not your mother. It is a barrister being stressed out…. ’

So read the notice stuck on the study door of one prominent female silk and mother who like many has been forced to conduct court hearings, conferences and all other business at home with the family. When posted on social media it provoked a flurry of like-minded contributions from others in the profession experiencing similar challenges. Another notable one: ‘No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.’ The predictable comments of judgment and vitriol followed. Those within the Bar understand well its good-humoured resilience, the comradery born from shared experience of long hours, unrelenting pressure and personal sacrifice – not only our own, but the sacrifices made on our behalf by those who share their lives with us.

And these are different times. We now live in a time of together-ness and apart-ness, of lost and found. And in this different time our needs and those of the people around us still call to be met – the needs of our families, our households, our professional circle, our friendships. The need for time, for space, for sharing and caring, giving and receiving, to speak and be listened to, to be seen, to be intimate, to be alone, to be reassured, these and many other needs call to be met, some with a louder voice than usual, and they will speak or act out their presence whether we like it or not. For children in particular, these are unsettling times, and they will look to their parents for the reassurance and calm that they need right now.

So how do we keep grounded, remain capable, and maintain healthy relationships during this time? How can we steady the ship for those around us? Is there a better way than just shutting the study door?

There certainly is. We give some guidance below, adapted from tried and tested tools used in team and couples coaching. They may seem challenging, and for sure it is easy to try and stick to what we know. But when we do, we lose opportunities for something new. We are in new times which call for new ideas.

To start: get creative

If you and your household are open to new ideas about home life in lockdown, you can start by asking some basic open questions to reveal what you want to avoid as a household and what you want to achieve.

It is essential to approach this with the right attitude. The right attitude is one of non-judgment, active listening, enquiry, curiosity and creativity. These attitudes will create a wide funnel for thoughts, ideas and feelings to come in. Hold the funnel open for as long as possible before drawing any conclusions. Be inclusive to all voices, particularly those who are more often marginalised.

Ask questions like:

  • What does poor home life during lockdown look like? How would it feel? What are our worst fears? What do we need to do to avoid them?
  • What does good home life during lockdown look like? How would it feel? What would our best outcome be? What do we need to do to support it?
  • How can each person in the household contribute to and support the outcome we want?

Your household may want to create an image or metaphor for the good outcome which it can visualise and explore. As every advocate knows, there is a magic in a strong metaphor, it has an innate, living power that resources thought and emotion.

Until you talk about these things, you do not know what the household wants or needs, and more importantly, nor is the household consciously aware of what its needs are. Remember that your relationship system is greater than the sum of its parts. You may think that the instructions to draft an advice that your clerks want you to accept are the most important thing in the world, but your family unit – of which you are a part – may have different needs. Take the opportunity to create something consciously from the start of this precious time that you have together.

Set boundaries and routines

One of the key challenges with home working is boundary setting. Hence the notices on the study door. The daily routine of office work and school life comes with ready-made boundaries of when and where. Morning and evening commutes, and the morning and afternoon school run, mark the entry and leaving points. We realise now that the daily routine we so often railed against had a purpose and value which is now missing.

Home working and prolonged co-living in lock-down means that boundaries need to be created at home. Everyone in the household needs to have boundaries. Boundaries allow us to feel safe. Everyone needs to understand what they are and why they are there. Everyone needs to respect them. This is particularly important for children, who will take their lead from adults. If the adults feel rudderless and at sea, so will the children. Boundaries and routines, and the order they bring, will help keep the peace.

Once you have identified what good living in lockdown looks like, start creating boundaries and routines to support it.

Here are some ideas on what each person might do. Children will need to be supported by adults, or if very young, adults need to do this for them:

  • Make a list of your needs
  • Create an initial daily routine. If you are working, you might try to order and time your daily schedule as close as you can to your normal workday, assuming your normal work-day is helpful to you. It is what you are used to. In reality if there are young children in the home these will need to be modified, but it is a helpful starting point. Children will need to have a go at creating their routine too.
  • Create beginning and ending rituals. These don’t need to be elaborate. It might be nothing simpler than always taking a shower, putting on some smart clothes and having a coffee before you start work. For children it might be clearing the table after breakfast.
  • Create some ground rules for communicating and checking-in with work colleagues. When working remotely, it can feel as though you need a specific reason to call someone, whereas in the workplace people tend to converse more casually and naturally. Many chambers are organising regular Zoom tea meetings and drinks. Even if these do not appeal to you, remember that your attendance may be supportive to and appreciated by others. You may be surprised what you get from it. Regularly checking in with work colleagues is also likely reduce the pressure on those around you at home. Meeting your needs outside the household can ease the pressure of what you need from within the household.
  • Try to set aside a particular space for people to work, play and rest, including private space to be alone.
  • Importantly, spend time understanding each other’s needs.

When this is done, the household can hold a conversation to moderate everyone’s ideas to a working whole (for communication tips, see below). Remember that our relationships are a separate entity from ourselves, they are created by our interactions with each other. So be conscious and purposeful in what you create. A lot of relationship conflict is caused by people having different expectations and interpretations of what the relationship is or should be. Compromises need to be discussed and made (yes, you may need to return or turn away work). Keep things under constant review: one of the defining characteristics of a healthy home life, and healthy family relationships, is flexibility.

Develop open, non-judgmental communication

Open, non-judgmental communication is an antidote to projection and mind-reading. Projection and mind-reading are among the most effective self-made traps to ensnare relationships, particularly when the pressure is on. We set these traps whenever we make assumptions about the meaning behind someone else’s behaviour. These assumptions are very often wrong. When we assume and attribute motives, feelings and intentions to another, we deny the other their own identity in the relationship, and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to understand them better. We rob our relationships of their truth.

Make the effort to develop open, non-judgmental communication at home. By training and habit, many barristers are not accustomed to this. As with everything, it gets easier with practice, and when someone starts, others will follow.

Key points are:

  • Express your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-blaming way. Rather than saying, ‘You make me feel...’ Say instead, ‘When I see this, I feel…’ This ensures that you take responsibility for your own feelings. Avoiding blame and accusation helps keep temperatures down.
  • Listen actively. This means listening with patience, non-judgment, and without blame. Listen for the purpose of understanding the other person’s perspective, not validating your own. Rather than, ‘So what your saying is…’ ask open questions, ‘What do you mean?’ Be patient and curious about the answers.
  • Identify needs. When needs are not being met, relationships suffer and conflict happens. So a way out of conflict is to address needs. Try to arrive at a place where you can say, ‘I feel this way because I need...’
  • Make requests. Once needs are identified, requests can be made so that needs can be met. ‘Do you think we can exercise outside separately? I really need some alone time.’

Get value from online social contact

In one sense, a lack of physical contact with others in lockdown undermines social intimacy. But there are ways in which the virtual world is supportive of social intimacy, and perhaps has advantages over its more ancient counterpart. The first is through the ease with which we can share and connect with the personal, the private, the authentic. We can literally share our homes, our thoughts and feelings, even our study doors, with the outside world. Sharing what is personal is an innate part of building social contact, closeness and trust. It helps us to be seen, to be validated. The second is through the rapid creation of supportive, like-minded networks and groups, some lasting, some ephemeral. Social support through sharing similar experiences, by expressions of appreciation, by signals of belonging to the same group – these all add to our sense of safety, ease and connection to a greater whole. Again, the study door banter and sharing is an example of this. For those not used to using social media, try dipping your toe into it. You may find the water inviting, soothing even. Although there may be sharks out there, our courage is our strength.

Practise gratitude and enjoy simple pleasures

It has been said many times before, and that’s because it is true: acknowledging what we are grateful for is a proven booster for wellbeing and happiness. Practise it every day, not just in your thoughts, but in your actions. Take time over your food; slow down your eating and enjoy it. It was not so long ago that you regularly skipped lunch to keep on top of your trial, or you ate the same sorry sandwich alone at your desk in chambers each day.

When things get tense at home, take time out and play the appreciation game: take it in turns to express one thing you appreciate or are grateful for in your housemate or family member. Handled well, it works wonders, particularly among warring siblings. If you are in a romantic relationship, remind each other of the wonders of your early love.

Seize this opportunity

Remember what every barrister already knows: every problem is a solution in the making. These extraordinary times create a rare and valuable opportunity for personal and relationship development. The time is now. Seize it.

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James Pereira QC

James Pereira QC is a practising barrister at FTB Chambers, a professional coach and NLP Master Practitioner, and a member of the International Coaching Federation. He coaches individuals and organisations from a range of business sectors, and is a co-founder of The Libra Partnership which provides coaching and training for barristers (www.thelibrapartnership.com). He co-writes a regular wellbeing and career column Loving Legal Life in The Lawyer online, and is a contributing author to the book Lawyer Health and Wellbeing (Ark, 2020), explaining how coaching enhances lawyer performance.

Zita Wa - Tulyahikayo

Zita Wa - Tulyahikayo FRSA is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, holds ICF accredited training in Systemic Coaching and is an NLP Master Practitioner. She has an international client base and over 12 years in practice. She sees members of the legal profession and other professions for coaching in personal and professional development. Zita co-writes Loving Legal Life, a wellbeing and career column for The Lawyer online. Zita co-founded The Libra Partnership which provides coaching and training for barristers: www.thelibrapartnership.com