As COVID-19 mutates and surges across the country, the divide between pro and anti-vaxxers continues to widen. Relationships between opposing parties have grown tense and have become hard to navigate.
Regardless, science speaks for itself: spending time with the unvaccinated is dangerous to you and them. When family is concerned, this can be especially hard to handle.
I reached out to medical professionals to figure out the dos and don’ts of talking to family members hesitant or unwilling to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Do Sit Down, Try It Out And Make Them Feel Heard
Talking to family about vaccine hesitancy is tricky. You love them and don’t want to alienate them—or have them alienate you. But Dr. Liana Casusi says that it’s a conflict we can’t afford to avoid.
“In health crises like this pandemic, it is better to be open and straightforward in conveying your health choices than risk contracting an infection,” said Dr. Casusi. “Gone are the days when one can keep mum regarding their own health choices.”
“The first step to have a conversation,” Dr. Casusi says, “is to initiate it. Sit your family down and try. Do not get discouraged when they refuse the first time. Instead, maintain a connection. Make them feel heard.”
If you expect them to listen to your reasoning, then you have to extend the same courtesy. It might be difficult or frustrating to hear, but the conversation must remain two-sided.
After hearing their talking points, you might want to retaliate with medical and scientific data. Unfortunately, this often does more harm than good.
Don’t Overload Them With Facts
As Dr. Michael D. Miller explains, “People’s resistance to vaccinations is mostly rooted in mistrust. They have often come to believe in myths and falsehoods.”
“So, challenging them on facts from what you know to be reliable sources won’t move them,” he continues. “They likely mistrust your sources (i.e., big government agencies like the CDC or experts at medical centers).”
I know. I hear your frustration through the computer screen. Why wouldn’t we trust the Center for Disease Control or experts at medical centers?
Social media and unreliable news outlets have created a plague of misinformation in our country. Studies show that older generations are more susceptible to fake news. Unlike younger generations, they haven’t spent their entire lives learning the nuances of the internet.
But for those of us who have, hearing family members share obvious falsehoods can be mind-boggling. Pen America has an incredibly helpful resource for addressing misinformation shared by loved ones.
Do Stay Cool, Calm And Collected
“When having conversations about polarizing issues, it is important to stay calm,” says Amy Launder, a psychotherapist at The Awareness Centre. “People tend to get worked up and angry when discussing such divisive issues, which means they are unable to get their point across.”
However, staying calm doesn’t mean ceding to their misinformation. “Do not interrupt when they are speaking,” advises Dr. Madathupalayam Madhankumar. “Listen to them completely, but do not agree with false information.”
“The reason why people end up arguing is that they are forcing their own beliefs without providing proof or evidence,” adds Dr. Kristina Hendijua. “You can casually discuss the pandemic with them.”
“Never argue too deeply,” Hendijua continues. “Only talk about things that both of you will understand. If scientific facts won’t get to them, then try using an emotional appeal.”
“Tell them about the things you are now able to do with your family because of the vaccine. They need to feel like their being unvaccinated is putting them at risk and a disadvantage in society,” Hendijua explains.
Don’t Make It Political
“The best way to talk to those who are unsure about vaccinations is to make it as non-political as possible,” says Nancy Belcher, CEO of Winona. “Deconstruct the idea that vaccines are political. Give them a worldly perspective.”
Not politicizing the conversation is, of course, easier said than done. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first major health crisis the global community has politicized. And in the United States specifically, we were ripe for pandemic polarization.
The pandemic hit U.S. soil in the fourth year of the most polarizing presidential administration we’ve ever seen. American society was already in a pressure cooker. COVID-19 made it blow.
So, some of your family members might not be ready to drop the political aspects of their arguments. If they continue steering the conversation toward politics, Miller suggests using it to your advantage.
“Point out the many Republican politicians who have gotten vaccinated (Donald Trump, Mitch McConnel, Texas Governor Abbott),” he says. “It also might be worth pointing out that the vaccines were developed under the past administration.”
If that doesn’t work, then keep looking for common ground elsewhere.
Do Find Common Ground
“Sharing common ground is a great way to move the conversation forward,” suggests Dr. Alice Benjamin. “For example, if the common interest is wanting to stay safe while attending usual recreational activities, then work backward.”
“Take turns to discuss what things can be done to do that,” said Dr. Benjamin. “If you notice the conversation heading down a political route, steer it back. Agree to set politics aside in this matter of public health and safety.”
“What can we as everyday citizens do to aid in ending the crisis?,” she continues. “Establish a brotherhood/sisterhood in this war against COVID.”
Dr. Casusi agrees that moving away from the vaccines altogether can be helpful. “If your sister loves traveling,” Dr. Casusi says, “talk about how borders will open once more people become immunized.”
It might feel counterproductive to move away from vaccines. After all, you know vaccines are the only way to beat the pandemic. That’s why you’re having the conversation in the first place. But sometimes, indirect convincing works best.
“The point of these conversations is not always to try to get the other person to change their mind,” Launder adds. “It’s to show the other person different perspectives and to share information.”
Don’t Beat Around The Bush
Conflict with family is not easy. It can be tempting to give in for the sake of keeping the peace. But the COVID-19 virus isn’t interested in peace-keeping, and you shouldn’t be, either.
If a family member refuses to get vaccinated and you no longer feel comfortable being around them, it’s best to be direct. “There may be no ‘gentle’ way to have this conversation,” Miller warns. “Since it is a serious discussion, being somewhat direct may be the best.”
“When it comes to your own safety and your family’s, it’s not rude to be straightforward,” assures Hendijua. “Let them know that you believe medical experts and clinical studies. It’s not only for your family’s safety but for theirs as well.”
“The main thing to remember,” Launder summarizes, “is that you don’t have to justify your position on the COVID-19 vaccine to anyone, including your family. You have the right to have your own opinion on the vaccine, which you don’t need to defend if you don’t want to.”
Do Use The Sandwich Method
Launder’s final note is empowering. But that doesn’t make it any easier to tell a family member that you can’t be around them. Benjamin suggests the “sandwich method.”
In the sandwich method, you position the “bad” bits between two “good” bits. Launder suggests saying, “‘I love you and look forward to spending time with you, but I’d like to wait until you’re vaccinated. I wouldn’t want either of us to get sick. I would feel terrible about that.’”
“Honesty is still one of the best policies,” she continues. “It’s also okay to say exactly how you feel, whether it’s ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I’m worried’ or ‘I’m afraid of being around you. So many people have gotten sick and died from COVID. I don’t want either of us to be next.’”
“Also, be mindful of your tone, delivery and body language when saying these things. Be compassionate but stern, so they receive the message with kindness and concern,” Benjamin concludes.