Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

Three practical questions to ask the vaccine hesitant

You know that debating the vaccine probably won’t work and you want to try another tack. So what’s the best way to approach such a tricky conversation? Gerard Barbalich has three questions to get you started.

Under the shadow of delta and leveling out vaccination rates, a summer looms that threatens to be something akin to Bo Burnham’s Inside, marked by loneliness, alienation and fear. I for one am not excited by this future, nor the current reality where everyone seems to have a friend or family member who hasn’t had the jab and doesn’t plan to. All of this frustration culminated in me heading down an internet rabbit hole where I went looking for tools to help steer conversations with the vaccine hesitant in more productive directions.

A note to start

Before we look forward to changing people’s minds on vaccines, we should look back at what we know for sure doesn’t work: relying on the information deficit model. Dating from the 1980s, this model proposed that people’s views on any topic could be changed simply by giving them the right information. But as we sit in 2021, following decades of internet-fuelled political and cultural turmoil, we rightly scoff at the idea that the divisions in society are due to a lack of easy access to facts.

The problem is that people tend to be insular and dogmatic in what they believe. Simply giving them more facts does not reliably change their views. Rather, when offered competing facts, we are all known to experience the rebound effect – a doubling-down and entrenchment of our beliefs. Making a conversation on vaccines a debate over facts will likely lead to an argument about what is true, which rarely ends well. So, the first first principle to follow is: don’t debate facts.

The next principle is: don’t try to “win” the conversation. Especially with a conversation on beliefs, trying to appear the expert only makes you look arrogant. Don’t try to shame people, shame their opinions, or shame their crowd (I promise, we will get to what we are trying to do shortly). If our conversational partner feels any judgement or condescension from us, they will likely stop speaking in good faith and simply disengage. I know that rolling our eyes, scoffing or laughing is an easy way to release a surge of self-righteous pleasure, but I promise you it will not help bring about the fully-vaccinated outcome we’re all hoping for.

The third principle is: set the bar low. As people rarely change their minds on anything in one sitting, don’t expect the conversation on the questions below to end with a moment of realisation, an intense embrace and balloons falling from the ceiling. Can you recall the last time you drastically changed your mind about a topic within one conversation? Neither can I.

The fourth principle is: listen, summarise, reflect and question. As strange as it may sound, the questions below are not trying to change anyone’s mind. Rather the hope is that they will explore a way of thinking and invite reflection.

So where do we actually begin?

Treading lightly

A good place to start is a conversation about the conversation. I will ask my friend (let’s call him Barry) if he is even open to talking about how he feels about the vaccine. I’ll make it clear I’m not out to shame or poke fun, but that I am curious about his thoughts. If he isn’t interested, that’s fine, I’ll try again another time. And lastly, before we begin, if either of our tempers flare, I’ll make a silent commitment to walking away and trying again later.

My first question for Barry is how confident he feels about the vaccine.

“How do you feel about getting vaccinated right now, from one to 10? Ten is that you absolutely do, and one is that you absolutely do not.”

This will give me a sense of where he is, and I may discover that he is more open to vaccination than I thought. My next question builds on the first, and takes a left turn from the usual approach – I want Barry to describe what parts of vaccination he feels positive about.

“You said you’re a five on that scale, why not a lower number, why aren’t you more sceptical? You said five, why not three or two?” 

My sole job at this stage is to listen. Once Barry has finished speaking, I’ll summarise and reflect back all of what he said, which will both make him feel heard and respected. My reflection may go something like this:

“So what I heard is that you are worried about getting Covid, and you are also worried about your family members, especially your grandpa. And you have had vaccines before – for example, you had all of the ones when you were young. Is that correct?”

Again, remember, we don’t debate facts. If Barry does want to repeat his anti-vaccination feelings here, I’ll make it clear that I already understand those, but that is not the purpose of this talk.

“I know you have strong thoughts on why the vaccine may be bad or dangerous. We’ve often talked about your distrust of Bill Gates and the cabal of global elites, but we often get stuck on talking about those. So how about today, we just talk about your thoughts on the potential positives to getting vaccinated?”

Once I understand Barry’s level of confidence in the vaccine, together we can move onto his why – his justifications. Here, again, I won’t debate facts, but I am keen to explore why Barry believes those facts, and how reliable they feel to him.

“I understand how you feel about getting vaccinated, but I’m curious where you got this information from? And do you feel it is a reliable source of information?”

If this gets tricky, remember to listen, summarise, reflect and question. A useful tool for questioning here is the “outsider test”, in which I’ll ask Barry to apply the same logic to a totally separate issue.

“So you are not keen to get the vaccine because your neighbour had a bad reaction to it. They had a headache for a few days, right? What about if your neighbour had got a headache from eating some alfalfa sprouts, but their wife ate the same sprouts and was fine. Would you never eat alfalfa sprouts again? How would you tell what is the right decision to make?”

After a final round of listening, summarising and reflecting, I will step away without applying pressure, ensuring I can come back to talk another time. Remember principle two: we aren’t trying to “win” the conversation.

I know this whole process can all feel quite intellectual. It is drawn from an academic field called epistemology, so little wonder the language seems sterile. The important thing is to take the main idea – ask, reflect, and question why, rather than what, someone believes – and wrap it in your own words and style, for your own community and whānau.

Many of the key points for this article have been taken from a recent episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, which I highly recommend. Please listen to it if you would like more in-depth explanations and examples.




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