One of the most difficult conversations people are having these days is about Covid-19 vaccines. What starts as a hopeful conversation can quickly turn into an unproductive argument that damages relationships. One common approach to such discussions includes a list of facts and a tone of condescension, and works about as well as one might expect.
Regardless of which side of the vaccine argument you land on, it’s natural to want to convince people to see your side of things. Unfortunately, trying to convince someone to change their position on anything is problematic, and on this topic it can seem impossible.
A conversation about any issue where there are strongly held beliefs on both sides has the most chance for success when we approach the person with authentic curiosity about their experience while looking for shared ground. A simple concept, but often challenging in practice.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a useful communications protocol to guide difficult conversations. Created by Marshall Rosenberg in the early 1980s with a focus on compassion, the NVC approach offers an opportunity to be more fully heard and understood oneself, and to hear and understand someone else. Using these strategies can lead to a civil, respectful conversation that may open the door to considering the benefits of taking the vaccine. Below are some basics to get you started:
First, notice the stories you are telling yourself about the other person. Are you in full judgment that someone who doesn’t want the vaccine is selfish, ignorant, influenced by a political party, or reliant on false information? Although you might want to dismiss the person for their beliefs, judging them in this way reduces them to a stereotype. Most people do not respond positively to shame, name calling, and accusations. The quality of your interactions are impacted by judgments about the person you are speaking with, and the listener will likely be unable to hear you, and become defensive.
Attempt to step back from judgments and attachment to outcomes, and have authentic curiosity about the other’s views and what is important to them. Imagine that they have their own take on things that you haven’t considered, and see if you are able to sincerely show interest in what is important to them. If what they are sharing is not based in fact, ask them if they are interested in information that can clear up their misunderstanding.
No one wants to be blindsided by a difficult conversation. When you are genuinely interested in the other’s point of view, it becomes possible to invite a conversation. Starting with, “I know we’ve disagreed about the vaccine,” or “I know talking about the vaccine can be edgy. I’d like to have a conversation with you where I really hear what is important to you”.
As the person shares their views, notice if you start to become agitated, anxious or upset with what they are saying, and make an effort to remain calm and attentive by regulating your breathing, relaxing tension in your body, and paying attention to what they are saying that is important to them. Instead of arguing, reflect back what you are hearing, and ask them if you are understanding correctly. Remember any statements that aren’t based in fact and return to them later.
Once the person has shared their views, and you’ve reflected back, ask them if they are willing to hear some questions to clarify areas of confusion or disagreement. For example, “I heard you say you believe that the vaccine changes your DNA, and this worries you. If I thought this was true, I would be worried as well. Could I share with you how the vaccine actually works?” Sometimes having clear evidence that the belief comes from inaccurate information can shift someone’s view.
Ask if the person is willing to hear why it is important to you that they get vaccinated, focusing on their well-being and the well-being of others. Avoid any criticism or demeaning comments. Be willing to hear more from them about their beliefs, following the same protocol.
Finally, see if the person is willing to talk with their family doctor. Current research shows that when it comes to getting vaccinated, people are more likely to take the advice of trusted medical professionals than from any other group.
Although you may not be successful in convincing someone else to do what you want them to do (in this case take the vaccine), using these steps as guidelines will help you to have a respectful conversation that promotes mutual understanding, and can preserve a relationship that would otherwise be damaged by an argument.
Lisa Gottlieb is an MSW and Certified Trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and founder of Compassionate Communication Ann Arbor.