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How to talk to vaccine-hesitant loved ones right now

These conversations are tough but necessary.

In the United States COVID-19 vaccines have now been widely available to adults for two months.

While other countries are scrambling for vaccines to protect their health care workers and vulnerable populations, many states in the U.S. have implemented vaccine lotteries or other incentives to improve vaccine uptake, and President Biden announced a goal of having at least 70% of Americans even partially vaccinated by July 4—something that is looking highly unlikely.

As cases of the Delta variant increase and mitigation strategies (such as mask mandates) fall away, the pandemic has moved into a new stage, with the vast majority of new cases occurring in the unvaccinated population.

All of this brings much angst for vaccinated individuals with unvaccinated loved ones, not to mention people with compromised immune systems whose level of protection from the vaccines remains uncertain.

While the majority of fully vaccinated folks are at low risk of infection and serious disease, many of us have friends, relatives, coworkers, and more who remain at risk.

The introduction of a series of variants that are more transmissible and possibly more serious add urgency to the challenge to vaccinate more people.

But how do you talk to the people in your circle who are choosing not to get vaccinated?

Here are a few pointers for discussing vaccination in a way that preserves your relationships while, ideally, helping them decide that getting vaccinated is the safest choice for them—and those around them—after all.

1. Lead from a place of emotional connection.

No matter how many scientific facts you know, studies you could cite, or reputable news stories you can link, “you need to connect emotionally with the person before you present any facts,” Nadine Gartner, the founding executive director of Boost Oregon, a nonprofit organization that empowers people to make science-based vaccine decisions, tells SELF. “

Make sure that they trust you and know that you have their best interests at heart,” which you may want to explicitly state at the start of the conversation.

Karen Ernst, director of Voices for Vaccines, cautions that, when it comes to health decisions, “we make them based on our values and oftentimes prompted by emotions.”

Because of this, if you’re considering a conversation on this topic, it’s important to meet your loved one in that space and be understanding.

Another key is determining the specific concerns they may have and the origin of those concerns, notes Obianuju Genevieve Aguolu, MBBS, MPH, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Medicine whose research investigates vaccine hesitancy.

Don’t simply make assumptions about what they may believe about vaccines; fears and concerns vary widely.

For instance, don’t jump into debunking the false idea that “vaccines make you magnetic” without knowing whether this is truly something the person is worried about.

2. Put empathy front and centre.

All the experts I spoke with emphasized that listening with empathy is key.

Don’t make it all about you. Dr. Aguolu suggests using open-ended questions to find out more about their vaccine worries.

“It is important not to be judgmental or argumentative,” she says. Instead, focus on gathering information. “

When you listen carefully to your loved ones, you are likely to identify their concerns and salient beliefs—the whys that matter to them regarding vaccination.”

Try to view the discussion as a partnership. “When we have a thorough understanding of their concerns, we can search for answers with them and build on what they already know in a way that will bolster their confidence in vaccines and their desire to be vaccinated,” says Ernst.

3. Consider using “the four r’s” in your conversation.

Gartner relies on the four r’s to guide her discussions: receive, repeat, respond, and refer. That is, receive information from them by asking questions; repeat that information back to them to validate their concerns and affirm you are listening; respond by asking if you can share some information with them (“This makes them active participants and not feeling like you are talking down to them”); and, if they say yes, answer their concerns with respect (such as, “I can understand why that would sound scary”) and referrals to evidence-based information.

Keep in mind that there are a number of preexisting biases that can be in play here, resulting in fear of or concerns about vaccination.

Much of the decision-making process comes through the filter of prior experience, and that may be personal to them or more general, such as the lived experience of groups they belong to.

Gartner cautions to pay attention to these factors that may feed their hesitancy, including “mistreatment by government and health systems; mistrust of government and big pharma; adverse reactions to prior vaccines or other medical interventions; political affiliations; sources of news and information.”

Being aware of these concerns and issues can lead to a more fruitful discussion.

Additionally, because of the success of prior vaccination programs, Dr. Aguolu notes that many individuals in wealthy countries have never experienced many vaccine-preventable diseases.

“This makes it difficult for them to perceive the severity or their susceptibility to vaccine-preventable diseases, or the dangers of the reemergence of these diseases,” she says.

Even with COVID-19, some may have a skewed idea of the seriousness of the disease due to misinformation campaigns that have been waged over the past 18 months.

4. Avoid a few (very easy-to-make) mistakes.

There are definitely some behaviors to avoid. Don’t be condescending, judgmental, or impatient.

“We need to have faith that no one arrives at a conclusion about vaccines—even an incorrect conclusion—capriciously,” says Ernst.

“Impatience can make us jump in before a person has been heard out, and we can miss important opportunities to learn more about their concerns and lose their trust as someone who is willing to listen.”

And while this may be difficult, Gartner recommends not approaching the conversation with the intention to persuade. “Doing so sets up an adversarial tone where they feel opposed to your position and dig their heels in harder.”

Instead, she suggests this scenario: “Imagine yourself as an anthropologist or journalist, instead of a prosecutor, and ask a lot of questions without judgment or telling them what to do.”

Approaching it this way avoids putting you in the position of a pushy salesperson and places both of you on more equal footing regarding health choices.

If you’re feeling insecure about your responses, you can practice these discussions with the New York Times chatbot before embarking on a real-life discussion.

5. View this issue as a marathon, not a sprint.

Remember that the person you’re speaking with likely didn’t come to their own views after a single conversation, so it’s unlikely these views will change because of one either.

That doesn’t mean you’ve failed. “They may have absorbed anti-vaccine misinformation for months or even years before speaking to you, and you will not undo that in one conversation,” cautions Gartner.

And while you may feel urgency to have your loved ones protect themselves through vaccination, Ernst reminds us to have patience: “Almost no one carries vaccines around with them. Convincing someone on the spot to agree to vaccination is not necessary.”

Rather, you should consider the goal of being seen as someone who will listen and who will work with others to find answers to their questions and concerns.

“Success in these conversations is when your loved ones are more willing to listen to you instead of feeling like you are pushing unwanted information on them,” says Dr. Aguolu.

Most times a conversation like this will be just a first step in a longer discussion, but having someone they know they can count on to express their doubts to and rely on for good information can be invaluable in the long term.

So, to that end, experts recommend emphasizing that you are available for more discussion. If they have requests for specific information, follow up with them without pushing.

Let them know your door is (figuratively) open for additional questions and dialogue.

“These conversations can be time-consuming and emotional, but they are worthwhile,” Gartner notes. “It’s always the right time to remind someone that you love them and want the best for their health.”

In the midst of a pandemic, this is even more important. “It's an all-hands-on-deck moment,” says Ernst. “Everyone needs to have these conversations.”

This originally appeared on SELF US| Author: Tara C. Smith, Ph.D.

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