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What Do You Say to Someone Hesitant to Get a COVID Vaccination?

August 13, 2021

The most effective way to understand – and possibly change – someone’s point of view on getting a COVID-19 vaccination is to simply listen. Dr. Jim O’Dea, vice president of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, said people have spent enormous energy and time trying to convince others to agree with them on the vaccine's importance. In what has become a “very complex issue” during the 18-month pandemic, he said some believe the vaccine will protect them against the virus and others do not want to be vaccinated for various reasons. “Anybody who’s wanted to get a vaccine by this point has gotten a vaccine,” he said. “I’ve seen people turn this into a debate and try to argue a position. But you can’t change someone else’s mind. It’s hard enough to change your own mind about an issue you feel strongly about. “Efforts to change someone else’s mind are unproductive or even counterproductive.” He turns, instead, to cognitive science, which explains how people process information. His advice is to respect other people’s reality, become curious about opposing points of view and practice active listening, which he said brings listeners “deeper into why a person could be experiencing this in a way that’s different from way you experience it.” “To be really constructive and get inside what someone else is thinking, we need to put our own perspective aside and ask probing, curious questions about their opinion,” Dr. O’Dea said. When he encounters people who don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine, he simply asks why. The question yields varied responses – one Black woman said she doesn’t trust the healthcare system and, upon further questioning, she pointed to the Tuskegee syphilis study involving Black Americans from 1932-72. “This is an experience that’s well-documented about ways we have not been respectful and, in fact, caused great harm,” Dr. O’Dea said. “It’s constructive to hear their side and (we should) demonstrate that we actually care about their point of view.” Others admit to fear about side effects or feeling bullied by employers mandating the vaccine. “I wouldn’t question them, I just ask more questions," he said. "I say, ‘Tell me more about the side effects you’re concerned about.’ It’s about radical acceptance of their reality and really wanting to learn more about how people are feeling and thinking about something.” Sometimes the person is so happy to be heard that they become more open to the opposing opinion, Dr. O’Dea said. “It may cause them to be curious about a different point of view. When they feel heard, they begin to be a bit more open about alternative perspectives,” he said. Less productive, he said, is arguing about personal rights or spouting pandemic-related statistics to bolster a pro-vaccine stance. “There’s an emotional part of this that’s very personal,” Dr. O’Dea said.