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If you’ve been following this column, you’ll know by now that I’m not journalist. But there also are many other things I’m not. I’m not a medical doctor, I’m not a public health professional, I’m not a virologist, and I’m not an epidemiologist. In other words, during this pandemic, my skills and abilities have been pretty useless.
If you’re like me, you probably have close friends and family members who are still not vaccinated against COVID-19. If you’re like me, there are times that you may want to scream, “STOP BEING AN IDIOT AND GET VACCINATED,” while talking to these loved ones.
If you are ready to scream at these loved ones, you’ve probably tried to show them the evidence that supports vaccination. You’ve probably relied on information from the CDC, local hospitals and other reputable sources to try and make your point. But your loved ones haven’t budged. It seems that science and data won’t persuade them.
However, a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that vaccine-hesitant people tend to change their minds after having conversations with family and friends. The report says: “Seeing their friends and family members get vaccinated without serious side effects, talking to family members about being able to safely visit, and conversations with their personal doctors about their own risks were all persuasive factors (for vaccine-hesitant) individuals.”
If you’ve approached your vaccine-hesitant loved ones with the data and they haven’t changed their minds, you need to realize that you are bringing logic to an emotional conversation. In emotionally intense conversations, people can’t hear the logic until the emotions have subsided. Emotions tend to dissipate only after the conversation has a key component — safety.
While I’m not a medical doctor, or a public health profession, I am a family therapist. My expertise is in bringing safety to emotionally charged conversations. In my practice, I’ve found that when people feel emotionally safe, they can hear other points of view. That’s when they can change their minds.
So, let me provide some tips on how to create emotional safety for loved ones who are vaccine-hesitant.
First, meet them where they are. When you start any conversation about vaccination, ask someone to explain how the feel about vaccination. Don’t approach them from the position of being right. Even if the data suggests that vaccination is the best option — which it does — that doesn’t mean your loved one is going to feel safe if you try to force them into your position with data and logic.
Second, ask if they want to hear where you are coming from. If you can create a space where people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to listen to you. And, if you invite them to listen to what you think instead of just telling them, they also are more likely to try and understand their point of view.
Third, don’t be the expert unless you are the expert. If your vaccine-hesitant loved one says something about vaccination that is off-base, don’t try to argue back. Instead, say something like, “I’m not quite sure about that. What if we looked into that together?” Welcoming someone into the process of discovering more about vaccination is more effective than trying to have all the answers when you don’t.
Finally, don’t give up. Vaccine-hesitant loved ones aren’t going to shift from “I will never get the vaccine” to “I’m going to get vaccinated ASAP” after one conversation. Emotional safety isn’t created after one conversation as well. So, follow-up with you loved ones. Tell them you keep bringing this up because their health and safety is important to you.
I can’t promise this will always work, but I do think it’s our best chance. I’ve been having frequent conversations with a loved one who is vaccine-hesitant. Some days after I talk with her, I still want to scream. But as I’ve reengaged multiple times, she’s been willing to listen more and more. She’s still not vaccinated, but because I love her and want her and her kids to be safe and healthy, I’m going to keep trying.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. He is also the co-host of the Attached Podcast. Comments: email@example.com