In workplaces and living rooms across the country, people are having difficult conversations about the COVID-19 vaccine. And with Thanksgiving just around the corner, we’ll be addressing these immunization issues for family reunions and holiday reunions soon. Talking about vaccinations can lead to deep anxieties related to safety, health and independence.
High-stakes conversations like these can end quickly. Wrong words or wrong assumptions can plunge a relationship into repetitive cycles of defensiveness, mistrust, and antagonism. If you’ve ever seen Thanksgiving dinner turn into a loud political argument, you know what it looks like – and you know how painful it can be, not just for those involved, but for an entire community.
The conversations we have in private are also microcosms of our public discourse, where some people lament “anti-vaccines” who “don’t believe in science” while unvaccinated people who worry about the government or the government. medical system might think that their concerns are not being heard at all. This dynamic serves no one. This generates even more mistrust and does not make us safer or healthier.
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How to do better? We can start by bringing out the individual experiences that lie beneath a person’s values and perspectives. The complexity and subtlety of a person’s own story can interrupt these toxic cycles – without requiring anyone to compromise their core beliefs.
Let me offer two pairs of examples to help illuminate this idea.
I have a friend who got pregnant during COVID-19. Weighing the risks and benefits with her doctor, she chose not to get the vaccine. She and her partner had struggled with fertility for so long that they were terrified of complicating the pregnancy. Another friend, with the same basic knowledge and information, got vaccinated the second she was eligible after getting pregnant. She was terrified of complicating an already high-risk pregnancy with COVID-19.
These two friends started, more or less, in the same place. They arrived at different decisions through a series of value-based choices. They made the best decisions possible every step of the way, trying to protect themselves and their pregnancies.
I have another friend who has a weakened immune system. After the vaccine was approved, she drove 10 hours from Colorado to Kansas to get the shot – that was the closest available appointment. Another friend, who has congenital kidney disease, has not yet been vaccinated. The doctor said they really couldn’t predict the vaccine’s side effects, or how well, for people with the disease. Balancing the risks, they decided it was safer to take other precautions, like masking. Now my friend is concerned that at some point they will be mandated by their employer or the government to get it anyway.
These individual stories and many more cause the public debate about vaccinations to explode, oversimplifying the decisions people face and looking down on those who disagree with you. Few people would honestly engage in a conversation where they expected to be humiliated. These conversations are doomed to fail – they fail to persuade, they fail to make us all safer, they fail to sustain our relationships and communities.
As long as we engage in toxic, polarized, zero-sum debates about COVID-19 vaccinations, we will struggle to build effective policies and public trust, both of which are necessary for public health. .
We can start to change the national conversation by having better conversations about immunization in our private lives. It is not easy, but it is not impossible. If you want to engage in a deeper and more meaningful dialogue about vaccines, especially with someone who might disagree with you, here are three questions to ask yourself before starting the conversation:
What is my goal for this conversation? Before you dive in, make sure you have a goal that the other person would sign up for. Instead of trying to change a person’s opinion, try to learn more about the values or personal experiences behind their choice. Or step in to help them feel heard and seen, especially if they are in the minority in your community. You might find that the conversation leaves you both changed in ways you couldn’t have foreseen.
Where do I feel in conflict and where does my thinking defy expectations? Most people have nuanced views on the issues that matter most to them, but rarely have the opportunity to share those views in all their complexity. Start by thinking about areas where your own point of view is less clear or certain than people might assume. Decide what you are willing to share. Maybe you have mixed feelings about bodily autonomy and tenure, or you don’t fully trust the drug companies, or you fear spreading COVID without knowing it. Opening up to your own thoughts, feelings and values will allow other people to do the same.
How do I ask a question that invites a personal story rather than an opinion? Questions can open people up or shut them down. Try asking questions that invite a personal story or experience, or share what is at the heart of the matter in terms of their perspective. Ask questions such as, “What would you like people to understand about your decision? Or “What, about your decision, resonates the most with value about how you want to live your life?” “
People are always changed by what they hear in a deeper, more real conversation with someone else in their community – even if their perspective or choice remains the same as it started out. There is no way to know the outcome of a genuine, open, and curious conversation until you actually have one.
But one thing is certain. Without better conversations, without interrupting toxic cycles of polarization, we will not be able to meet the challenges our communities face today. Better conversations are crucial if we are to live and work in community, thrive in community, and survive as a democracy. At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all that our futures are intertwined.
– Katie Hyten is Co-Executive Director of Essential Partners, which empowers people to live better and work better together by building trust and understanding beyond differences.
– The Fulcrum covers what makes democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our systems of government.