Here is the truth: COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are safe, and they work. They are highly effective at helping prevent hospitalizations and severe COVID-19 illness. Being vaccinated and boosted allows people to move through life with a semblance of normalcy.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of false information out there about COVID-19 vaccines that can lead some of our friends and family members to decide not to get vaccinated. Some may be skeptical of the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, while others may be afraid of the vaccination process. Even though you may disagree, it can be a touchy subject and daunting to bring up in conversation.
If you want to engage friends and family in a conversation about COVID-19 vaccines, the best approach is a thoughtful approach. With holiday gatherings around the corner, now is the perfect time to prepare.
“It is important to enter the conversation not with the intention of convincing or persuading someone to change their mind, but to learn about their barriers,” said Dr. Ruth Zúñiga, Oregon Health Authority senior health advisor and licensed psychologist. “Once you understand someone’s barriers, maintain trust by trying to support them in whatever stage of their journey they’re in.”
Here are some tips for how to have a respectful and productive conversation about the benefits and safety of being vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
Have an open mind
Entering the conversation with an open mind will make it easier to gather information and understand the other person’s perspective. Listen with curiosity and don’t interrupt. Show them you are listening by paying attention, removing distractions like cellphones and keeping your body language relaxed. Even if you don’t agree with their reasoning, try to validate their feelings and show gratitude for their willingness to share: e.g. “I know this conversation can be difficult, and I appreciate you having it with me. I am sorry if this situation is causing you stress or confusion.”
Listen, withhold judgment
If you allow ample time for the other person to talk without reacting or responding, you have a better chance of having a positive and meaningful conversation. Ask open-ended questions to understand their perspective. You can start by asking them about specific concerns and where they get their information. Questions such as, “What are you concerned about?” or “What have you heard?” are respectful and do not expose your own opinions (which could shut them down or, worse, lead to arguing). Show that you are listening by responding to their comments with respect and kindness, and not changing the subject or steamrolling the conversation. If you don’t agree with what they say, avoid challenging or contradicting them.
Connect on shared values
During the conversation, point out where you agree on shared values. Acknowledging common ground between your viewpoints can help remove tension. For example, if someone is expressing fear over the safety of the vaccine, let them know you felt scared at first, too, but you felt better after being vaccinated. The conversation should be one of encouragement, not a fight or competition. Connecting on core beliefs (the desire to have a normal life, prioritizing health, fear of the unknown) can remind them you do not see them as ‘the opposition.’
Work to replace misinformation with new information
If their view is informed by misinformation, ask if it’s OK to share resources with them to address their concerns. But you should use the conversation to gather information first, not to lecture. Be an active listener, jotting down notes if appropriate, so you can follow up later with links to resources they may connect with later. Doing your own focused research for someone shows that you are willing to put in the effort to support them, but don’t overwhelm them with information. Respect their answer if they do not want to receive resources.
Offer in-person support
Depending on the situation, try offering support if they decide to look into getting vaccinated. Whether that means sitting together while you both research vaccination site locations, or joining them when they get the vaccine, can provide comfort. For some people, getting vaccinated is quick and simple. Others may not have the time or ability to access a vaccination clinic, and you could offer practical support such as transportation, babysitting or translating for someone who does not speak English if you can. Whatever stage in the process they are in, ask what would be helpful.
Show them you care
The willingness to have a tough conversation usually comes from a place of love. When a person you care about acts in a way that you don’t agree with, it can be tempting to feel angry, hurt or frustrated. If you find yourself becoming upset during the conversation, take deep breaths and remind yourself – and your friend or loved one – that you are having this conversation because you care. Coming on too strong, or with the wrong intentions, can make people defensive and unlikely to change their minds.
You may not get the result you’re hoping for right away, but the health of our loved ones and communities is worth working for. By showing up and having the hard conversations, you show others that you’re ready to embrace them with open arms if they ultimately make the decision to get vaccinated.
Recognize when to stop
If you notice the conversation moving into an argument, or they seem overwhelmed or firm in their stance, be willing to retreat gracefully. Be patient with yourself and recognize that even the best intentions may not lead to the outcomes you desire. End the conversation with respect and without judgment. Feel good that you tried and leave the door open for further conversation.
OHA blog – The data are clear: COVID-19 vaccines work
Vaccines are safe – CDC Adverse Reactions page
OHA blog – Updated COVID-19 booster targets subvariants responsible for 98% of cases today
OHA blog – Severe side effects from COvID-19 vaccination are rare
OHA blog – “Plug and Play” mRNA technology is fast and safe
How to find a COVID-19 vaccination or booster – Vaccines.gov
UNICEF – How to talk to your friends and family about COVID-19 vaccines
Johns Hopkins – How Can I Talk to My Friends and Family About Getting Vaccinated for COVID-19?