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Learning to love the shared outside again

One of the biggest and most obvious impacts of Lockdown living has been the altered relationships we have with ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, with ‘home’ and ‘away’. When we’re urged to stay at home, largely indoors, because the shared spaces beyond now offer a threat to our individual and community wellbeing, clearly we are all going to have strong and unusual feelings about that.

So, as we begin to move out of Lockdown in stages, but into a world where the threat of Covid-19 remains, it’s worth interrogating this changing relationship. So many businesses depend on a confident, reliable and often pleasurable experience in shared physical spaces, that an altered relationship poses a big threat and a massive challenge. How do we reassure people that things are safe, whilst also making them feel attractive, exciting, fun, aspirational, or whatever the other positive qualities are, that are vital to turning shared physical spaces into destinations? Especially in a world where people often have engaged even more heavily with online alternatives.

The truth is, that after weeks and months of lockdown in most markets, we are beginning from a deeply problematic starting point as far as renewing engagement in the shared outside world is concerned.

Going to the supermarket for the weekly shop has, on one hand, been a welcome reason to get out and about. But the eerie emptiness of the city, the atrophied high streets, the sparsely populated aisles and the slightly nervous wariness of fellow shoppers trying to politely observe the two meter distancing rule has felt strangely depressing, even though I know it’s all there to help keep our community safe.

I’ve also been in the very unusual situation of needing to take a family member abroad for medical reasons this week. The experience of traveling internationally has felt like the supermarket experience on steroids. The colossal terminal at Heathrow stood almost entirely empty with all outlets closed, bar a WH Smith. The flight itself, with all passengers wearing masks and gloves, with no provision of food or water possible on board, was eerie and difficult. Arriving in a foreign country also just emerging from lockdown was daunting, feeding an additional wariness about remaining safe without the protection of ‘home’ to fall back on. Our particular medical reasons aside, traveling abroad in these circumstances has been the pure antithesis to an experience we once looked forward to as exciting, aspirational and stimulating.

Whether in the supermarket, at the airport or on the plane, the steps taken by the companies involved to adhere to strict guidelines for everyone’s protection are, of course, all totally valid. They’re doing all the right things to protect me, their staff and the community and I’m thankful for that. But it certainly made me continually conscious of the threat around me. I felt they were risky places, I was reliant on the companies involved to protect me, I felt uncomfortable. Ultimately I wouldn’t have wanted to be in any of those places unless I had to be.

Thinking about my relationship with shared outside spaces as it stands right now reminded me of a transactional psychotherapy model that’s used to explain dysfunctional, anxiety inducing relationships.

It’s called Karpman’s Drama Triangle after the psychologist who first observed and defined it in 1968. In the Drama Triangle, there are three roles: the Victim, who feels powerless, vulnerable and in difficulty; the Persecutor, who is threatening, malevolent and problematic; and the Savior, who comes to the Victim’s rescue, defending them against the Persecutor. It’s an easy set of relationships to fall into, but also a dysfunctional way to relate to one and other. Victims can end up self-pitying and disempowered. Saviors can enjoy a sense of control and superiority, whilst feeding the powerlessness of Victims. And the Persecutors are often just framed that way by the Victims and Saviors…they are often not really as malevolent as they seem. Although we might not be fully conscious of exactly why, we intuitively feel uncomfortable and unhappy when we’re caught up in a Drama triangle.

In the midst of lockdown, it seems my relationship with outside shared spaces and the companies that operate in them has neatly fallen into this pattern. I perceive the outside shared space as a threat, a problem, something that holds risk for me and that I can’t trust…a potential Persecutor as a vehicle for Covid-19. I feel myself to be vulnerable, not fully in control of the consequences, unable to express myself freely in relation to the outside shared space…a potential Victim mentality. And I’m reliant on the companies organising those shared spaces to take control of things, to protect me from harm, to act as Saviours riding to my rescue.

Of course, in the midst of Covid-19 there really is no reasonable alternative to this anxiety-based, dysfunctional relationship between the shared space, the individual and the company that’s responsible for things. There is real risk there. The companies need to protect the individual. We as individuals need to accede to all of this, even though it is unpleasant and off-putting.

But it begs the question, how do we move away from this dysfunctional relationship and back towards a more positive relationship that is essential for creating appeal and engagement in outside shared space?

The alternative to Karpman’s Drama Triangle is an Empowerment Triangle. In this set of relationships things are framed and organised to be affirming rather than anxious and inspiring rather than dysfunctional. The Persecutor, that person or thing that previously held threat and menace, is now an Opportunity, a person or thing that offers change and reward. The Victim, that individual who felt disempowered and hurt, is now a Creator, in control and capable of enacting ideas. The Saviour, that person, brand or organisation that needed to assume control and rescue the victim, is now an Enabler, coaching, encouraging and inspiring the Creator.

This Empowerment based set of relationships is where brands and organisations that depend on a positive relationship between people and shared spaces, need to aspire towards again as soon as circumstances allow. They need to frame their shared spaces as places that offer something new, stimulating, refreshing and rewarding, not just places in which the ‘threat’ has been neutralised. They need to frame their consumers, shoppers or travellers as individuals who are capable, who have full agency over their choices, who can pursue their goals and ideas, not just as vulnerable people who need protection. And they need to see their own role as an inspiring enabler of what the individual wants to achieve, supporting, stimulating and facilitating, not taking control and governing their every move.

In doing so, the shared public space can return to being aspirational, fulfilling and exciting as a destination once again.

The difficulty in this observation about the need to move from Drama — Anxiety based relationships to Inspiration — Empowerment based relationships is that we are going to be living with the threat of Covid-19 in the shared public space for some time to come. So brands and companies can’t afford to view these two sets of framing relationships as binary and entirely separate, waiting for the time when the ‘Drama Triangle’ can be parked and the ‘Empowerment Triangle’ can be wheeled out.

The truth is that they are going to need to co-exist for the foreseeable future. People are inevitably going to feel some threat from the public shared space until Covid-19 passes, and they are going to need to know that brands and companies managing those spaces have got their back as an absolute first base. But having created that reassurance as a foundation, brands and companies urgently need to look to build Inspiration and Empowerment on top as quickly as circumstances allow.

Communication touch-points will need to be carefully orchestrated to play to both dimensions within the same time-frame, without creating contradiction and dissonance, delivering the reassurance of protection as a basis for permitting the delivery of inspiration and appeal.

Striking the right balance won’t be easy and the ‘right balance’ is likely to shift over time, potentially swinging back and forth depending on how Covid-19 evolves. It’s going to take brilliant insight, planning and creativity to bring everyone back into these shared spaces with confidence and a sense of freedom. The sooner we can achieve it the better.

I’d love to know what you think and what your plans are. Feel free to drop me a line on