Handling vexing vax discussions

Kate Hesson
Kate Hesson.
Super Saturday has been and gone.

Maybe you have "got the jab" or maybe you are hesitant about Covid-19 vaccines.

Chances are you know a person who falls into either category — maybe at your work, among your friends or in your family.

You can choose to ignore your differences, but it is becoming harder to follow that strategy in the current environment — especially if you work in a sector where vaccinations are being made compulsory.

If you are unsure of how to approach conversations about the vaccines, you are not alone. Here are some tips for navigating these difficult discussions.

Please note, this is not an attempt to sway your opinion on whether to be vaccinated or not. Rather, these are suggestions on a safe way to approach such a divisive topic.

There are many reasons people believe in getting the Covid-19 vaccines, including for the "good of the whole community". Let’s get New Zealand open again for the survival of business, for our children’s education and so we can travel.

Vaccine hesitaters also have many reasons for not wanting the Covid-19 vaccinations. Some are concerned there are side effects that are not worth the risk.

Others think the risk of getting Covid themselves is low; so why bother? Others see this vaccination rollout as government overreach and a threat to personal freedom.

Overwhelming each other with too much information on your opinion can backfire. When presented with multiple counterarguments to strongly held views, people can become adversarial, spending energy poking holes in your view.

It is easier for us to pay attention to information that supports our preconceived ideas and ignore information to the contrary or give negative news more credence than good news.

When faced with uncertainty, many of us will tend to cling to our identity groups for a sense of safety and support.

Unfortunately, that can lead to "groupthink", where people discredit information from someone outside of their group — even if it’s true — helping to entrench their views. It is hard to accept a different perspective when dealing with fear and anxiety.

To get past this, as best you can, put aside your own views and walk in the shoes of others. No matter how unreasonable a person seems when voicing how they truly feel, in their own mind their words or actions are justified. In this sense, they are no different from you.

If you try to convince them that they are wrong, they will defend themselves. While you think they are the one with the problem, from their perspective you should be the one who changes!

This seems common sense when emotions are not taking over your conversation. In order to keep the rational side of our brain in control instead of our emotions, it useful to approach discussing difficult issues by applying "transactional analysis".

This was developed by Dr Eric Berne and looks into the ego state of people involved in their interactions.

At any stage, we may be like a parent, child or adult. In this context, we could take on a parental role if we are worried about the other person and the risks we think they are taking with their health. Alternatively, we could act like a child if we are rebelling against something we think we are being forced to do. This affects how we see issues, and how we treat the people we are communicating with.

These ego-states are:

Parent: A set of thoughts and behaviours learnt from our parents and other important people. This part of our personality can be supportive or critical.

Adult: Relates to direct responses in the ‘‘here and now’’ that are not influenced by our past. This tends to be the most rational part of our personality.

Child: A set of thoughts and behaviours learnt from our childhood. These can be free and natural.

When we are parent-like we tend to talk down to others and want to control them. When we are child-like we can avoid ownership of problems and moan about them.

Being like an adult is the ideal state for us when discussing and resolving difficult issues. Then we have control of ourselves and take responsibility for meeting our own needs.

We are also more willing and able to understand the perspective of other people. For example, when a parent to child dynamic is in play, one person may be talking down to the other. When we talk adult to adult, we treat each other as equals.

Emphasise commonalities, not differences

Even if you are feeling frustrated, it is important to be empathetic. Make the other person in your conversation feel heard, attempt to connect with their underlying sentiment.

For example, you could talk about how difficult Covid-19 has been for all of us. If you only talk about vaccines you are not looking at the full picture.

This can encourage division, rather than focusing on the unifying troubles we have all experienced during this pandemic. If you are getting too frustrated, pause and take a break.

Listen patiently and wholeheartedly

Ask open questions — be curious. This allows options to be discussed and helps the other person to participate as an equal.

Make sure not to cut off, speak over or jump into correcting the other person. Listen to them and meet them where they are.

You don’t have to agree with what you may view as false information, but you should keep trying to empathise and continue the conversation. Be careful not to focus on what you think is wrong or a myth, as myths or opinions are very emotive.

Help them feel comfortable with you.

Right now many people are scared and feel like they lack control over the way they choose to live their lives. When you are talking to them, make them feel safe with you so that they can be open and discuss their concerns and reasons behind their choices without judgement.

You could offer to keep their position private and maybe help them find out more information. Acknowledge your own feelings to them.

You might be offended by what the other person says. You could then say: ‘‘I can see you feel strongly about this and it doesn’t make any sense to me. Help me to understand where you’re coming from."

Give it time

Remember that for those who are strongly set in one position, their opinions will not likely be changed in one conversation. The important thing? Maintain a connection with each other. This is a dynamic and controversial space, and we don’t have all the answers. We need to be understanding about the uncertainty people feel.

  • Kate Hesson is director of Hesson Consultancy.


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