Many vaccinated people are angry at unvaccinated. If you’ve had the Covid vaccination, you might agree with Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who recently said: “People should have common sense, but it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated, not ordinary people. It’s the unvaccinated people who are letting us down.”

And it’s not just the masses who let us down, it’s the people close to us: our co-workers, our friends, our family members. You may be furious at what you consider to be the selfishness, ignorance and lack of civic responsibility of the people in your life who refuse to vaccinate.

And you’re not alone – social media is rife with posts trying to convince people to vaccinate by explaining how wrong they are. Such is human nature. You may be engaging in similar persuasion yourself.

But here’s the question: How does this strategy work for you? After you’ve pounced on anti-vaccinationists and those who don’t want to be vaccinated, do they thank you for talking some sense into them and rushing to make an appointment?

We believe that is not the case.

Instead, conversations heat up, things are said that are impossible not to say, and you both walk away feeling angry, frustrated, and resentful. In that moment, it may feel good to indulge your emotions and let them run wild. But the price is high: We ruin the relationship, and they don’t get the inoculation. Even if we present them with clear, seemingly convincing facts.

There is a well-documented phenomenon in psychology called the “blowback effect.” Providing people with facts that refute their incorrect beliefs can actually reinforce those beliefs. Researchers have observed this phenomenon in the context of political misconceptions, voting preferences, deciding whether to vaccinate their children, and whether to get a flu shot themselves. The more often people are confronted with facts that contradict their opinions, the tighter they cling to those opinions.

And if arguing the facts doesn’t work, you know what works even harder? Criticizing, blaming and shaming them for being thoughtless, selfish, stupid, ignorant or psychopathic. You can check it out for yourself: When was the last time you changed your behavior in response to someone blaming or shaming you?

We want to say that we feel your pain. We are both vaccinated. We are frustrated that the Delta option, combined with widespread hesitancy to vaccinate, is prolonging the pandemic and requiring continued mandates and mask closures to control its spread. And we cringe at the unnecessary suffering and loss of life. We are also angry.

Like Governor Ivie, we also feel the urge to persuade them to change by giving them the facts, arguing with them, criticizing them, and shaming them for their selfish disregard for others.
The truth is, we care deeply about this issue. We also care deeply about our relationships. When these two aspects collide, we feel like we have to choose. Am I risking a breakthrough infection by spending time in a confined space with an unvaccinated family member, or am I risking the relationship by refusing to be in her presence, requiring her to wear a mask, or trying to convince her to do the right thing?

The Power of Empathy

How do you find the balance between risk and relationship?

We’d like to share a process that reduces risk through relationships. While it doesn’t guarantee that the unvaccinated people in your life will drop everything and sign up to be vaccinated, we believe it will greatly increase your chances of success.

Our approach is based on your willingness to relinquish control; to recognize that the person you are trying to change has autonomy and will make their own decision. Of course, what you are relinquishing is not control, but the illusion of control. The person you are talking to is always free to vaccinate – or not. You can’t choose for him. That’s why you try so hard to convince them.

So, when we can’t convince with facts or criticism, what can we do instead?
Two things: empathy and curiosity.

When we show empathy, we show the other person that we think their needs and problems are valid. Even if we don’t agree with their position, we recognize that it makes sense to them.

How do we show empathy for the person who doesn’t want to get vaccinated? Let’s make it real: Think about the person you want to convince. First, deal with your feelings. Are you angry at them? Frustrated? Frightened? Are you looking down on them?

Feel those feelings, acknowledge them, and don’t blame yourself for them. Instead, show empathy for yourself. Your motives are good. You want to reduce suffering, save lives, and allow people to come together freely again without fear of contamination. You care, and so you have strong feelings about this.

But don’t act on those emotions right now. Instead, show empathy for the other person. What do they care deeply about? Here’s what we’ve heard from the indecisive people in our lives:

  • “I don’t want to put unknown chemicals in my body.”
  • “I don’t trust pharmaceutical companies.”
  • “I don’t want to be told what to do with my body.”
  • “These vaccines were administered in a hurry, without sufficient research, and they are not even fully approved by the FDA.”
  • “My chances of getting harm from the vaccine are much higher than the risk of dying from Covid.

I know you can argue with these statements. You may be doing it in your head right now. But can you empathize with them?

Is it reasonable for someone to want to avoid putting unknown chemicals in their body? Is it reasonable not to completely trust the pharmaceutical industry? It doesn’t take much googling to find billions of dollars in lawsuits and judgments related to harm, false claims and cover-ups by pharmaceutical companies. Isn’t it true that we only have short-term data on the effects and side effects of vaccines, if only because trials began less than two years ago?

In practice, empathy is about affirming another person’s point of view without agreeing or disagreeing with them. It consists of making truthful statements that show the other person that you understand them, to their satisfaction. For example:
“It sounds like you are concerned about the possible side effects of the vaccine. And that makes sense.”

“It sounds like you don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines. I understand that.”

“It bothers you that we don’t have long-term data on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. I understand that.”

Can we talk?

And then encourage them to talk. That’s where curiosity comes in. Ask questions, not to trap them in logical inconsistencies, but because you’re really curious about their answers. How do they compare the relative risks of vaccines and Covid? What data are they examining? What makes them doubt the safety of the vaccine? What have they seen and heard?

Once they feel that you care about their opinion and can learn from it – and from their example – rather than destroy it – or theirs – you’ll start a real conversation. Now you can move on to the important questions: What do they want? For themselves, for their loved ones, for their country, for the world? Chances are, this is where you can find common ground.

We all want people to be healthy, to not be harmed, to not be coerced. We all want the economy to thrive-though we may have very different ideas of what that means. We all want to be respected.

From here you can begin to explore your differences with curiosity and compassion. “It seems that you and I want people to be healthy and free from coercion. And this virus kind of pits these values against each other, with me leaning more on the health side and you seem to value freedom more. But I understand that you’re also concerned about your health. And actually, I’m in favor of vaccination because I think it will give us all more freedom.”

This was the approach we took with one of our vaccination-doubting friends. After a conversation full of respectful questions and discussion, she told us, “You know, I think I’m going to get vaccinated. Instead of trying to change her, we created an environment in which she felt safe enough to change on her own.

We don’t guarantee that outcome. We don’t know how your conversations will go. But when you have no real power over a person, only through a caring and respectful relationship can you influence them to change. If you want a loved one to vaccinate, approach them with empathy and curiosity to express your concern and respect. This is your best chance to help them get vaccinated.

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