5 Tips for Connecting From a Distance

John Koop Harder

connecting, covid-19, covid, pandemic, relationships, self-care, communication

“I’m sick of being sick; sick of being tired; sick of being alone. I’m sick of COVID-19!”

This is how a conversation with my recently widowed mother began prior to the holidays. Many of us can relate to her frustrated declaration because the pandemic has affected us all. It’s hard enough on its own, but for those already struggling with grief, physical or mental health, complicated relationships, etc., the pandemic has added an extra layer of complexity and devastation. Trauma, addictions, and mental health challenges thrive in the uncertainty, risk, and isolation caused by the COVID-19. Now more than ever we need to be proactive in looking after one another.

A key thing that I have learned personally and professionally is that health and well-being require relationships and connection. So, what does that mean for us as family, as friends, as professionals? How do we offer and provide support when we can’t meet in person?

Get Creative

Hard times influence creativity. COVID-19 has created numerous challenges, but it has also inspired numerous creative responses.

As I continued my initial conversation with my mother, she shared a recent experience that made her day. A friend from her apartment complex had recently received a bag of lemons as part of her online shopping order by mistake. What to do with a bag of surplus lemons? She sent a text to her friends in the complex, offering a few lemons under the condition that they share what they used them for along with a picture of the finished product. Not only did my mom get some tasty lemons, she was also inspired by recipe ideas and some deeper connections with her neighbours.

Creativity begets creativity. It ripples outwards and inspires more. My mom shared this lemon story with me and I, in turn, am sharing it with you. And maybe you’re now inspired to bake some lemon tarts…

Trauma, addictions, and mental health challenges thrive in the uncertainty, risk, and isolation caused by the COVID-19.

Consider the means of connecting

The great Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously declared, “The medium is the message.” Pay attention to how you communicate because it matters.

Thanks to technology, we have many options for connecting – text, email, phone calls and video conferencing, social media, handwritten notes, etc. We all have communication preferences and different levels of technological fluency. For some (like my teenagers!), texting is the most reliable. For others, a comment on social media or an old-fashioned phone call is the way to go. Talk about the person’s preferred means of connecting and start there. You may then want to consider experimenting with varied and multiple mechanisms – a quick text or email may be very welcome in between phone calls, for example.

One of the ways of connecting I have rediscovering is the written word. When was the last time you received a handwritten letter? I recently received a birthday card in the mail from my Aunt with a lengthy handwritten note. This told me that she cares, has taken the time to reflect, write, and mail me the note. It felt more “real” in that it was a tangible, physical thing. I was recently reminded of the staying power of letters after rediscovering a box of old postcards written to me from my grandparents over 40 years ago. There is staying power within a letter or postcard that is different from a text, email, or conversation. I’m quite certain my kids won’t have a shoebox full of their old text messages from their grandparents to cherish decades from now.

Amplify your best qualities

“I really appreciate your presentation style. It’s clear you enjoy what you do.” These are feedback themes I have recently received from my online training participants. I love meeting with people – sharing our experiences, learnings, victories, and struggles. However, my passion and love for my work as a counsellor and trainer has taken a bit of a hit since March as I now spend most of my days in front of the computer screen (which I don’t love).

I miss meeting in person and can get grumpy about it, which is why I treasure the affirmations. Without intentionality in how I am with people, it would be easy to just go on autopilot. However, with personal reflection/attention to qualities I value in myself (curiosity, compassion, kindness, and passion to name a few), I can better amplify and project these, even when the means of connecting is not ideal.

Consider what makes you good at what you do. Write out these qualities and reflect often on how you are living these out. Consider how these qualities may show themselves in how you connect from a distance. Reflect on how to bring these forth even more.

Reflect on your communication style

Communication is often easiest when we are able to share physical space together. Face-to face connection allows for greater opportunity to communicate nonverbally through things like body language and tone of voice. This is why connecting remotely requires active attention and intention to how we are relating.

I have a love/hate relationship with Zoom. One of the benefits and challenges for me is continuing to see myself on camera. Like many, I don’t particularly enjoy this feature (which is augmented by my desperate need for a haircut, thanks to code red lockdown!).

Despite the challenges of being on camera, one of the things I have appreciated about having this mirror is being able to see my facial expressions, gestures, and movements while I am engaging and connecting. I am much more aware of my many mannerisms and communication quirks, which allows me to better adjust in the moment. I am learning more about how I communicate as I observe myself and this deepens my practice.

We are hardwired to connect and be in relationship with one another.

Look after yourself

This spring, I first experienced a new phenomenon, one of which many people can relate to: Zoom fatigue. During the early days of the lockdown and subsequent and abrupt shift to presenting online, I found myself experiencing a greater sense of exhaustion, feeling more scattered, and suffering brutal headaches after a day of interacting through a screen. I soon discovered it takes greater energy, focus, and attention to connect remotely, thus the negative side effects.

Adjusting to this new way of connecting, I have had to reexamine how I connect. Some of the things I consider include:

  • Connecting over the phone for smaller or one-on-one meetings
  • Setting limits to the number of online meetings per day
  • Scheduling breaks regularly, even short ones
  • Setting shorter meetings
  • Standing, stretching, and moving between online meetings
  • Turning off the camera if appropriate in larger or longer meetings

We are hardwired to connect and be in relationship with one another. COVID-19 has dramatically interrupted our capacity to make and maintain connections with each other the way we “normally” do, but with challenge comes creativity. And with creativity and purposefulness, connecting from a distance can work quite well.


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Author: John Koop Harder (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

John is a co-author of CTRI’s  book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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