Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

Empathy prescribed for better crisis response

Spreading the message about how to limit COVID-19 has become a regular pastime for people across Canada as well as on Salt Spring, but some are feeling that community participation has gone too far.

From heated arguments on social media platforms to escalating tension in encounters between strangers, the societal cracks are beginning to widen. Several Salt Springers have reported feeling concerned about a growing “us versus them” mentality, whether that is expressed as islanders repelling outsiders or “covigilante” behaviour directed at fellow community members.

Dave Vollrath, a communications consultant with 30 years’ experience in the mental health and addictions fields, is one of the people who has been advocating community unity as well as personal responsibility. Concerns he was already ruminating on came to a personal head over the Easter long weekend; Vollrath’s son was verbally accosted by an intimidating-looking man who demanded to know who he was and what he was doing while he was in town to pick up take-out food.

“He returned home quite in a state of anxiety. A couple of hours was spent talking about it and helping him calm down from this uncomfortable experience,” Vollrath said. “My son is a 22-year-old young man who can take care of himself, but it hit home.”

Vollrath fully embraces the messaging by the provincial health officer and other officials about staying home when possible and practising physical distancing, but he also observes Canadians have both personal rights and responsibilities. It’s not up to other community members to police their neighbours, he said.

Local government bylaw enforcement officers have been empowered to assist with physical distancing oversight, primarily through education. Don Brown, the Capital Regional District’s head of bylaw enforcement, reported that is already happening on Salt Spring with help from RCMP auxiliary officers. Action over the Easter long weekend included asking some cafes to remove seating that had been set up on outside patios and asking large groups in CRD parks to disperse.

“Let’s stay with the authority figures and trust them,” Vollrath said. “People know what to do. I want, at a deeper level, for our community to think about what motivates us to vigilantism and governance over what others’ perceived essentials are.”

Nonviolent communications facilitator Laura Dafoe said having a mindfulness practice in place can be helpful for moments like these, both to settle oneself and to facilitate empathy with where the other person is coming from. Nonviolent communication is built around recognizing what the other person might be feeling and needing to connect to a common humanity and enable people to hear each other.

“For the most part we have not grown up in a world where we learned to articulate that in a useful way and really hear each other,” Dafoe said. “We often think we need to be bold and state our opinions loudly and strongly. Sometimes we think we need to use anger to get our needs met. But that can put the other person on the defensive, and then there’s no conversation happening.”

Key words to remember, she said, are “stop … breathe … ask questions.”

Dafoe can recommend many resources that may help improve one’s ability to feel empathy and communicate better with others. The website can help people deal with fears by giving themselves self-care. The Charter of Compassion is another useful resource, and so is the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s 10 Steps to Peace.

“In times of crisis we need to be together more than ever. Division is not helpful,” Dafoe said.

As a member of Salt Spring’s restorative justice group, Dafoe has seen the results that can come through exercises such as peace circles, where people in conflict all have a chance to speak (respectfully) and be heard. She will be hosting a Zoom workshop on how to create peace circles on May 7 for the Star of the Sea Centre for Spiritual Living and Practice. Other free events the centre is hosting online in the coming weeks could also help. Poetry in a Time of Trial, taking place Tuesday, April 28 from 7 to 8:30 p.m., will bring together people interested in sharing and exploring what poetry may have to say, directly or indirectly, to the current pandemic. 

Vollrath also encourages community members to find ways to come together and foster social connections even though physical distancing remains the rule, and to avoid taking COVID concerns into confrontation.

“We can easily turn this onto one another, this sort of blame, and we want to avoid that at this time,” Vollrath said. “We stand a chance as an entire Earth population to come together to solve a problem, and when our focus is on something else we may not be doing our best on the other. So let’s focus on a common good in a positive way.”


  1. A friend shared this with me. Well written… thoughtful… and useful. I really appreciated Dave’s insights, and Laura’s. Thanks for this, Elizabeth.


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