Recently I had the privilege of joining ICU lung physician Dr. Erika Moseson and immunologist Dr. Gigi Gronvall on the Air Health Our Health podcast for a great conversation about how to talk with friends and family about getting vaccinated. We talked about the special moment we’re in right now, with holidays approaching and new mandates increasing the social pressure (and the PITA factor) associated with remaining unvaccinated.
Meanwhile, as hospitals fill with unvaccinated people, many folks are experiencing compassion fatigue and having a much harder time staying engaged with unvaccinated loved ones. But as a behavioral scientist, I argue that there are plenty of opportunities in this place of transition for people to connect with unvaccinated folks in impactful ways – by leaning less on facts, and more on connection.
In the first podcast session, Dr. Gronvall answered common questions about vaccines that typically get folks hung up (things like how the vaccines work and why we know they’re safe), and I presented some suggestions for how that information could be presented to non-experts in an accessible, compelling way (using Star Wars references, if need be 😂).
In the second podcast session, we dug in deeper into what influences people’s decision-making around vaccination, and I present four steps to having more effective conversations with loved ones about getting vaccinated.
Those steps are included here for easy reference. While these suggestions are aimed at vaccination hesitancy, they can easily be repurposed to encourage other preventative behaviors – including masking and clean air protocols.
I’ll be digging into these steps in more detail in a series of blog posts that you can find on JPointCollaborative.com. Below, you can find the first step, but check back over the next week or so for the others, or just listen to the [second podcast session [need link from Erika].
It may be a surprise that the most effective tool of persuasion that you have available to you when having a conversation about vaccination today isn’t your knowledge about vaccination or all things COVID-19, but rather the quality and character of your relationship. In particular, the trust and care that you share for one another matters a great deal. These social and interpersonal elements appear over and over and over again in the research on what most drives human behavior during pandemics.
This means -good news!- you don’t have to be a technical expert to have these conversations. You don’t even have to talk like an expert. The dirty little secret of risk communications is that technical experts aren’t actually all that great at communicating about risk. This is, in part, because they don’t have personal relationships to amplify their message. Plus, most scientific disciplines train experts to be stoic and to separate objective truth from squishy feelings like love, care, and fear. But people actually need connection to make sense of the world, so that professional stoicism can actually work against them in terms of communicating effectively and influencing behavior. This is especially true now, when most peoples’ cognitive frameworks have been hardened by time, politics, and fatigue, and they are less likely to accommodate information that just doesn’t fit.
This is one of the reasons why people are more likely to adhere to pandemic guidelines when their close circle does. Social influence matters even more than people thinking it’s the right thing to do. These social relationships impact our behavior a great deal. Not because we are stubborn or stupid, but because we are human – remember, scientific facts haven’t been around all that long in the course of human existence, but other people have. Peers have. Humans got ahead evolutionarily by establishing relationships, learning who to trust, and then caring about one other deeply. If we’re going to be successful with this conversation, we need to work with this tendency, not against it.
So how can you best access the feelings of care you have for this person? I have two suggestions:
One benefit to taking time to just connect is that it tends to put folks in a good mood, which is associated with higher persuadability, and can serve as a buffer for any reactivity the person may have around the topic.
In the next post, we’ll talk about what to do once you’ve flexed your relationship, and how to collect the kind of information that will help you neutralize barriers and better support decision-making around vaccination.