Part Two: Nurturing Relationships

By |2020-10-19T16:02:48-07:00March 27, 2020|

During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.

Nurturing Relationships

The most dangerous weapons of war in the twenty-first century are not bombs and bullets, but the weaponization of mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, cynicism, and other tangles of trauma. Digital technology has given people the ability to weaponize and magnify these tangles of trauma in new and unprecedented ways, creating metaphorical bullets and bombs that can crumble the human psyche, social relations, and civil society. Societies become more unstable, and all forms of violence become more likely, when greater numbers of us feel:

  • mistrust toward each other and institutions
  • alienation that separates us from the humanity of others
  • rage that leads us into cruelty and away from justice
  • disillusionment and cynicism toward democratic institutions and processes, which undermine democratic norms

As citizens we need to think critically, but we shouldn’t confuse mistrust and cynicism with the most effective forms of critical thinking. There is a big difference between critical thinking that is motivated by empathy, conscience, integrity, curiosity, reason, and ideals, versus a society that is tangled in mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, and cynicism because people have felt betrayed by their government, their institutions, and each other.

There are many essential steps necessary to defend ourselves and our society against the weaponization of mistrust and other tangles of trauma, and to heal this trauma on a personal and societal level. One essential step is learning how to meet our need for nurturing relationships in healthy ways, which is the second non-physical human need on our list. Nurturing relationships consist of being listened to, respected, and treated with kindness and compassion. The foundation of nurturing relationships is trust, and as I will discuss in this week’s exercise, a vital way to nurture each other and build trust is by giving people our attention.

Trust, attention, and other aspects of nurturing relationships are so important, because contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which ranks physical needs such as food and safety as being more important than our non-physical needs, our physical needs are in fact deeply intertwined with our non-physical needs. Before becoming a professional chef, Thomas Keller learned that food goes beyond our mere physical needs, and that preparing food for others can be a powerful form of nurturing. He tells us: “In 1977 I met a French chef. He said to me, ‘Cooks cook to nurture people.’ That moment is when I decided to become a professional chef.”

Safety is also a physical need that is deeply intertwined with our non-physical needs. If a person has strong nurturing relationships based on shared trust and a strong sense of belonging based on living in a caring community, this person can feel much safer, even if surrounded by more physical danger, than a person living in a fortress who is unable to trust anyone and feels alienation rather than belonging. When there is a national or global crisis, much of the fear that people experience derives from mistrust. If people trust that their government, institutions, and fellow citizens will be their allies during a crisis, they will feel much safer. The less trust people have in their government, institutions, and fellow citizens, the more afraid they will be.

For this week’s exercise, strengthen your ability to build trust by giving people your full attention. When I was in the army, I learned that if I give people my full attention when they want to share an idea or discuss a problem they are experiencing, they will feel safer around me and this will build the trust that is the foundation of nurturing relationships. Attention has become rarer in recent years due to the growing temptations of digital distractions. And because the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more of our communication onto video conferencing services, it has become much easier (and more tempting) to stealthily send text messages or browse the Internet while people are talking to us through a small video window.

Giving people our full attention requires us to strengthen our ability to focus, which our Peace Literacy curriculum describes as strengthening our muscle of discipline. If we flex not just our muscle of discipline through deep focus when people talk to us, but also flex our muscles of empathy, conscience, appreciation, curiosity, and imagination, we will become much stronger listeners and leaders who build trust and help people feel safer. When you listen with empathy, conscience, appreciation for people and your ability to make a difference in their lives, curiosity that encourages you to ask appropriate follow-up questions, and imagination that helps you see yourself in the other person’s shoes while recognizing that the pain they are experiencing can far exceed your imagination, this will help you give others your full attention.

When our non-physical need for nurturing relationships is concerned, we not only have a need to be nurtured, but to also nurture others. Nurturing others can help us meet our need for higher purpose, which shows how these non-physical needs are interconnected, like organs in our body. Many ingredients are necessary for healthy relationships, families, schools, workplaces, communities, and societies. Nurturing that is built on a foundation of trust is not the only ingredient, but it is an essential one that you can work to increase in your life today. When we experience significant struggle, uncertainty, and crisis, nurturing and its foundation of trust become even more important.

The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.

You can also read part three of this series on Explanations.


This article is part two of our series “Peace Literacy for Navigating Struggle, Uncertainty, and Crisis.” To read the other articles in this series, click here.