Having the Tough Conversations
with Lisa Greene, LPC, CACII
How do I talk with someone (at work) who is refusing to get a Covid vaccine for religious or conscientious reasons?”
2020 brought fear and anxiety with COVID-19. And now as we seek to resume some normalcy, we’re facing anxiety over the vaccine. To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate… that is the question.
As I interact more again in my community and maneuver my way back to work, I am now experiencing anxiety about whether the person next to me (with or without a mask) is vaccinated. This is especially true since I live in a state with a relatively low vaccination rate for the U.S.
For many people, the COVID-19 vaccines are leading to uncomfortable conversations between family, co-workers, and friends.
In talking with my clients and the other people in my life, I am often curious about their reasons for hesitating to get one of the available Covid vaccines. After all, some have wondered aloud, we all had to be vaccinated to attend school… so what’s the difference this time? As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, there are a number of people who take exception to these vaccines in particular. There are people who do perceive a difference.
Sometimes individuals cite conspiracy theories — from the Covid vaccines leading to infertility, to implanting people with tracking devices — and those can be hard (though not impossible) to respond reasonably to.
Other times, people have personal health concerns or are unsure of which information sources to trust. We’re all flooded with a pool of scattered information to sift through, and it can be difficult to discern the motivations at play from any given source. It can be hard to know who, and what, to believe.
Additionally, there are people who hold deep convictions — including religious ones — that lead them to refusing a Covid vaccine.
So how do we have clear, compassionate conversations with those holding skepticism or outright refusal to receive a Covid vaccine?
In the end, it is not our responsibility to sit in judgement about a person’s perception of risk, nor of them standing in their truth. But as peers and leaders, it is our responsibility to have the tough conversations.
Let’s dig in.
The most important part of any discussion is to create a space where truths can be spoken and vulnerability leads to open mindedness. In order for this to occur, there needs to be an intact relationship that is built on trust and respect.
Let’s use the example of this conversation with someone at work who has a religious or other conscientious objection to getting a Covid vaccination. If your organization has been engaged in “doing the work” of building internal trust, then the hard part is out of the way.
Still, in the workplace this is turning into an especially touchy subject, as it relates to employee rights and bodily autonomy — as well as private and public health. For some, the hesitancy is linked to feeling that vaccines are against their value base, and this is linked to their religious beliefs.
It would be beneficial to better understand the history of cultural perspectives on vaccines; this may give insight into their resistance and open up communication that could be meaningful, whether or not it leads to a change in their mindset.
In having these hard conversations, you have to remember that getting vaccinated is a personal decision and you may not be able to sway their decision. It may take more than one attempt, so it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and provide the facts that can help someone make an informed decision.
When engaging in any sensitive topic, it is important to remember the purpose of the communication and engage in ways that won’t cause further harm (emotionally or to the relationship).
There is no one-style-fits-all when it comes to communication, so let’s go through two different styles of communication, and decide which is more aligned with your authentic presentation.
The Personal Style
In this style of communication, you can work to create a space that includes some (appropriate) personal disclosure from you, and potentially from them.
In this type of interaction, you can share your own reasons for getting vaccinated and personal experience with people who have been sick or died from Covid. The other person is more likely to share information when it’s a two-way street.
It would also be appropriate to share your own experience with getting vaccinated (any symptoms, or lack thereof) and/or the experience of a family member or friend you both know. Focus on your reasons for getting vaccinated, such as to protect family and friends, to be less anxious or to resume activities in public. If you experienced it, you can also be honest about any of your own initial hesitancy to get vaccinated.
By sharing your views, you may open someone’s mind toward finding their “why” for getting vaccinated. And if nothing else, you’ll both finish the conversation with a deeper understanding.
Here are some starter sentences for the Personal style:
“My doctor suggested getting the vaccination since I have underlying health issues, and Covid could be even worse for me because of them.”
“I was scared to get vaccinated, but I’m also scared of catching Covid; so I chose to get vaccinated, and my side effects after getting the shot(s) were actually really minimal.”
“After getting vaccinated, I felt like I was a part of the solution.”
“I wanted to be able to start spending time with my family, and maybe travel again.”
“I can’t imagine how this all must feel for you, and I know it can be a hard subject. Would you like to process it further?”
The Empowering Style
This style focuses on empowering the person you are in communication with. In this type of interaction you must have a solid level of self-awareness, listening skills, and an understanding of the other person.
If you are attempting to empower someone to do their part in improving public health, it’s important to approach the conversation with a positive mindset and genuine consideration for their views on the issue.
Try to be mindful of your paralanguage (way of speaking) and hold as much objectivity as possible; yours is not the only story at play. Use language centered around reminding them that they can help to change the trajectory of this time by getting vaccinated.
Here are some Empowering statements you can use:
“I understand that you want to keep autonomy over your body. Of course you do! It’s also good to remember that our autonomy comes with personal responsibility, and everyone is being called upon to act in ways that are loving and respectful of each other’s health.”
“We can all do our part in getting to the other side of this pandemic by getting the information about the vaccines and making decisions that are best for our health and those we love”
“In order for us to make it through this pandemic, we are all doing our part in stopping the spread. One major way to do this is to get vaccinated.”
Lastly, avoid judgement by actually listening — creating a space for that person to share the reasons for their hesitancy. Stay away from judgmental responses like “that doesn’t make any sense” (yes, even if it doesn’t). Though it may feel good to spit out, this type of response will make the other person shut down and end your chances of dialogue. Judgmental responses will also likely activate their defensiveness, which can turn the dialogue into an argument with no positive outcome.
One way to replace these judgment-based reactions is with questions that invite the person to investigate their reasoning.
Here are some questions you can try:
“I truly understand that this is against your beliefs. Have you reached out to find information on the official stance of your faith leaders?”
“To be honest I’m feeling really nervous in this conversation, how are you feeling?
“What aspects of the Covid vaccines are making you feel afraid? Maybe we can look at the research about those concerns together so we can both learn more.”
“Is there anything that I/we can do to create a space for you to feel comfortable enough to process your choices?
In these conversations, the goal is to embrace and empower people to make their personal health decisions with the best information possible. If they make the decision to get vaccinated, it will be because they come to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do, and the best choice for them and their community.
Help the person you’re talking with to remember that we’re all in this together, and even if we don’t initially have the same viewpoint, we all want the same thing: health and wellbeing for ourselves, our loved ones, and our larger human community.
Remember: lashing out in judgment will inevitably lead to shutting down the conversation. Do your best to come back to a place of compassion.
It’s not too late to pull together so we can make it to 2022, and continue to create our new normal, together.
Have a tough conversation you want Lisa’s expertise on?
Submit them to: LisaG@lthjglobal.com.