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  • Denise Jittan-Johnson

How to Manage Difficult Conversations about the COVID-19 Vaccine

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

As the mass vaccination campaigns are in full swing and vaccines are now available to members of the general population, there has been an uptick of contention between those who are eager to take the jab and those who are hesitant. It is all over social media feeds, group chats, and overheard conversations on the street... It is not pretty! The intolerance is real!

The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled vaccine hesitancy one of the biggest current threats to global health. While this proclamation is true, it is equally true that persons who choose not to be vaccinated - regardless of the reason - must also be treated with dignity and respect.

When having conversation with someone who has opposing views to your own, it is important to understand that your goal should not be to change their mind (you will be sorely disappointed and aggravated). The objective should be to listen reflectively, validate concerns and questions, and empathise with their feelings.

6 things you should do

  1. Come from a space of non-judgement: It’s important to listen to what the person is saying and reflect upon what they said. Simply repeating what they said is valuable because it shows you’re listening and makes them feel heard. You also want to get to know their concerns so you can address them. If you know that this is difficult for you, don't start the conversation!

  2. Ask open ended questions: Open ended questions lead to a rich back and forth dialogue where you both get to share perspectives. Asking open ended questions also allows for identifying areas of misinformation and opportunity for learning in a non confrontational way.

  3. Affirmation: Recognise their strengths and efforts in attempting to keep themselves and their families safe given the information they have.

  4. Reflecting and summarising: Building empathy by listening carefully and reflecting back what you think is meant, allowing the person to correct what they mean. In addition to building trust, this allows for more clarity of thought and understanding.

  5. Be encouraging: encourage each other to provide and use trusted sources to inform decisions.

  6. Understand that shifts in perspective resides solely within the other person: Reasons for change are only derived from one's own perceptions, goals, and values. Make peace with the fact that you cannot change someone's mind.

Things to avoid:

  1. Don't interrupt: Make sure not to cut off, speak over or jump in to correct the other person. This will likely lead to an argument.

  2. Don't focus on myths: Be careful about countering a misperception too directly. The discussion shouldn’t be all or mostly about addressing a specific myth because there will always be more myths that follow. Calling attention to a myth can also backfire by making the myth more memorable than the facts.

  3. Don't assume that they will get vaccinated: Recognise the person's right to bodily autonomy and choice.

At the end of the day, we are all going through this pandemic together. Vaccination awareness is based on international and national conversation, awareness campaigns, and community sensitisation. We can do our part by having these challenging conversations with mutual respect.

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