How to talk to family and friends hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Talking to loved ones who are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine can be difficult, but a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania is offering some tips on how to best approach the conversation.

"If you immediately come at them with a lecture that’s forceful, saying, ‘You have to get vaccinated,’ what often can tend to happen is their defense goes up and they put up walls," Dr. Edward Brodkin Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania said.

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Instead, Brodkin recommends the "motivation interviewing approach."

"Basically what it means is trying to get a better sense of the other person’s interests or concerns instead of immediately imposing your own opinions," Brodkin said.

The steps associated with the motivation interviewing approach are as follows:

- Adopt a stance of non-judgmental listening. When you’re willing to listen to the other person, you may be surprised to find how much more likely they are to listen to you.

- Ask the person’s permission to share with them some information that you’ve learned about vaccination. If they give permission, then you can start to dive into some of the science and the facts, now with an audience that’s likely to be more receptive.

- Elicit from the other person their own thoughts on this. Find out what some of their own motivations for vaccination and preventing illness might be. Ask these things in an exploratory, open-ended way. Building their motivation will work better if the ideas come from them, not you because they know best what is important to them. For some people it might be a desire to travel more, or to protect a loved one — you can’t know for sure until you ask them.

- Be patient. Realize that the other person may not change their mind in one brief conversation, especially if they are very reluctant or worried about vaccination. By maintaining a stance of openness, respect and a willingness to listen, understand and share information with their permission, you foster the growth of connection and trust, and they may well be up for revisiting it with you.

- Use the power of attunement. Rather than getting caught up in a whirl of stress and anger about the other person’s vaccine hesitancy, you try to maintain your own stance of relaxed awareness. You listen to their thoughts and feelings, with an effort to understand. And you meet them where they are, by taking an interest in their own thoughts and their own motivations, instead of immediately imposing your own.

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"If you come to them wanting to know more about their point of view and being able to listen in a genuine way that can open up great dialogue," Brodkin said.

Experts say the only way to fight the virus is through vaccination but there’s been a stall in the progress due to many people being hesitant. Brodkin says he believes it’s possible for those people to change their minds.

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"I think the reason this approach is so effective is because it’s using the power of human connection. The power of tuning into another person. Listening to them. Respecting them and having a conversation and a dialogue. That can be really really powerful," he added.

Dr. Brodkin is also the author of the book, "Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections," which touches on some of the tips he references.