"It's so emotionally charged,” says Anne Fishel, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is director of the family and couples therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It's about how we're going to go forward as a couple or a family, how we're going to take care of ourselves and others. It's about life and death.”
A January poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 47 percent of Americans would take the vaccine as soon as possible, up from 34 percent in December. But about 30 percent say they will wait to see how the rollout goes, and another 20 percent say they will get it only if required or not at all.
Cheryl Umbles sees the reluctance firsthand. An interior designer in Newark, Delaware, she is on a mission to convince family, friends and even clients to get a COVID-19 vaccine. It's not always an easy sell. But she soldiers on, based on her conversations with the medical community and her own background in pharmaceutical marketing.
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"I'm not giving up,” says Umbles, 61. “But a lot of people I've spoken to have been skeptical about the vaccine. I think it comes from a lack of knowing and understanding."
COVID-19 vaccine conversations are often frustrating or, at the worst, hurtful. But Fishel and other communication experts say it is possible to discuss the topic without things devolving into an unproductive standoff or a shouting match.
If you're trying to talk to someone about the vaccine, here's a 10-point plan based on what experts recommend.
1. Get prepared
Consider why you want to have this conversation, says Michele Gravelle, one of the principals at Triad Consulting Group in Somerville, Massachusetts, which teaches communication and negotiation skills. The company was founded by the authors of Difficult Conversations, a 2010 book that grew out of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
Gravelle warns that trying to change people's behavior may only put them on the defensive, so be clear on your goals for the discussion. And make sure the conversation isn't about being the one who's “right.” Ask yourself: “What is it that I want to have happen? What is it that I hope to achieve by having this conversation? Is it to put [someone] in her place, to correct her, make her wrong, prove how right I am?” Instead of trying to be the victor in an argument, make understanding your goal, Gravelle and others say.
2. Check in with your body
Know your own early warning signs or triggers that signify when a conversation is deteriorating, says Jasmine Scott, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and addiction specialist with Harmony Health Therapeutic Services in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Think about: OK, when I get a little frustrated, irritated or angry, I feel hot….What are those bodily warning signs that I'm not doing well in this situation, that I might need a break?” she says.
3. Talk less, listen more
“In debate, you have to listen because that's the only way you can respond and have a solid argument moving forward,” says Shunta Jordan, head debate coach at the University of Georgia. “Debate teaches you that listening is way more important than your ability to speak.” When it is your turn to talk, ask to share your point of view, says Fishel, rather than just charging ahead or interrupting.
4. Listen with “compassionate curiosity."
That's Fishel's term for really listening. She suggests asking people how they really feel about getting the vaccine and the worries they have? She suggests other questions, too: “What have you heard? Have had any experiences with vaccines or medicine that might contribute to the way you're feeling about it?”
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5. Pick your time wisely.
It might seem strange to make an appointment to talk to someone you know well, but that's better than stumbling into an important conversation inadvertently. “It typically tends to happen in the worst possible time when someone's had a couple of drinks or someone's already had a bad day,” Scott says. If that happens, it's OK to shut the conversation down or postpone it to another time.
6. Show gratitude
Acknowledge how the other person feels and thank him for his concern if, for example, he worries the vaccine is risky and could harm you, Gravelle says.
7. Be open and vulnerable
“We have to be willing to share how we came to our own decision, and if we have some reservations or some worries,” Fishel says. Also, describe the impact of how someone else's behavior will affect you. For example: “I would be really sad if you don't get vaccinated and can't come inside my house."
8. Hit the pause button
If things start to turn accusatory or to follow an old script ("You always …"), take a break. If you blurt something out and you immediately see a reaction, stop, Gravelle says. That's the moment to call a time-out and make it clear that it was not your intent to have that impact on the other person.
9. Seek common ground
"Whenever you're having a conversation with a family member or friend, where there's an opportunity for two very polarized points of view, try to find a bridge,” Fishel says. “Make some gray area where the conflict may be very black and white.”
10. Agree to disagree
Sometimes, differences can't be resolved. “Debate teaches that there are two sides to every story, two sides to every argument,” Jordan says. “Even if you don't agree with a person's perspective, you learn to at least appreciate that there is a contrary perspective.”
Agreeing to disagree may allow you to move the conversation to discussing boundaries if one person has the vaccine and the other doesn't. Remember, disagreement doesn't always mean failure. “If we had the conversation even slightly differently than we had in the past, even though we don't see eye to eye, even though we may still have some tension between us ... then that's a win,” Gravelle says. “It's a baby step in the direction of having a more respectful conversation with each other.”
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for The Boston Globe Magazine as well as her local NPR station, among other outlets.