How to Talk to Someone About Vaccine Hesitancy

Vaccine uncertainty is stalling our fight against COVID-19 – here’s how to have those tough conversations
A person looking at their phone with a concerned and curious look on their face

It’s been long-touted that between 70 to 85% of the population will need to be vaccinated for us to reach herd immunity against COVID-19. And although there is still truth to those numbers, vaccine hesitancy will likely now make herd immunity a moving target as we pass through different stages of the pandemic.

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Because of this, it’s crucial that we continue to press on and get as many people fully vaccinated as possible. But how do we solve this complex issue of vaccine hesitancy? What can we say or do to help sway uncertain friends or family members?  

Behavioral health therapist Kathy Barringer, LPCC, discusses how to approach this situation with understanding, kindness and respect.   

Aim for the middle ground   

There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to addressing vaccine hesitancy.

On one side you have those who are fearful, doubtful or have questions. Maybe all of the changing guidelines made them nervous, or perhaps they’re on the fence about receiving the vaccine because of the side effects. On the other end of the spectrum are those who have already made up their mind and are dead-set against receiving the vaccine.

Experts say to focus your time and attention on those people in the middle of the spectrum. Those with a fixed mindset about the vaccine aren’t likely to be swayed – no matter how logical, factual or respectful you are. But people in the middle group tend to fall in the “wait and see” category or simply need more information from a trusted source or individual.

These people in the middle territory are truly the vaccine hesitant and might need more time, more information or more assurance.   

Try to understand people’s doubts  

“All hesitancy isn’t created equal,” says Barringer. “Some people are absolutely terrified of needles or side effects like vomiting. Others might be hesitating because they don’t have access to a nearby vaccine clinic or some people might have doubts because of political reasons.”

It’s important to remember that there are a variety of reasons for someone to be uncertain about the vaccines. It’s normal and perfectly OK to have questions or concerns about it. Vaccine hesitancy shouldn’t be about judgment, Barringer notes. It’s about meeting the person where they are and then reassuring, educating and ultimately helping them get vaccinated. Your goal of speaking to someone about the vaccine isn’t to debate or win an argument.   

Many times, fear means there’s a lack of information. For example, if you find out that a friend or family member is fearful of the vaccine, try to get to the root of what is causing that fear. Are they scared of the long-term effects? Are they afraid of how quickly they were developed? Are they uncertain because they don’t know what’s in the vaccine? Maybe (or maybe not) their concerns are easing with the first full FDA approval of one of the COVID-19 vaccines?

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Knowing the source of someone’s fear can help you tailor your message and get them the information they need. But it’s important to remember to not be condescending about the person’s fear or concern. You may be fully vaccinated and well-informed, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has the same experience or even the same resources as you.

If the person mentions that they are concerned about the vaccine changing their DNA and you already know that’s not true (because it isn’t), tread carefully about how you respond. Your first instinct might be to roll your eyes, but that will likely make the person feel defensive.

“Making someone feel ashamed or embarrassed only makes people less likely to change,” says Barringer. “Instead, reference trusted health experts or sources when discussing their fear and why something may or may not be true.”  

Also be careful not to push your own opinions or beliefs too strongly during the discussion, especially if it’s the first of several conversations. Ask the vaccine-hesitant person open-ended questions about why they feel the way they do and where they got their information from. For example, you could say “Tell me what you think about the COVID-19 vaccine?” And “Why do you feel this way?”  

Then, when they answer, really listen to what they’re saying before you respond. When you do, mention your reasons for getting vaccinated and why you chose to. Everyone’s vaccine story is personal.

Know your audience

One of the best things you can do when addressing vaccine hesitancy is to share your own experience with friends and family. But before you do, it’s important to know your audience and what you should or shouldn’t share.

“If I’m talking to someone who’s really afraid of the vaccine side effects, I’m not going to go into great detail about how sick I was after my first dose,” explains Barringer. “I’m not going to lie to the person, but I’m not going to scare them in the opposite direction either.”

Instead, you could mention that side effects mean that the vaccine is triggering an immune system response in your body – it legitimately means it’s working. Or, if you know the person you’re speaking with is afraid of needles, you could mention that you were also nervous about the jab, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as you had anticipated.

Knowing your audience and what the person is afraid of or concerned about regarding the vaccine is crucial for what you say to them or even how you explain something.

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The vaccine acts like a quiz and COVID-19 is the final exam. In this case, taking the quiz (the vaccine) means you don’t have to take the final exam. 

If the person is very political, it’s best to steer clear of any mention of politics and instead try to focus on the vaccine as a major health issue and a concern for our health systems. If the conversation starts to turn emotional or aggressive, diffuse the tension by either walking away or mention that you can pick up the discussion at another time.

On the flip side of knowing your audience, also know yourself. If you just aren’t getting through to someone and the situation is getting intense or awkward, turn your attention inward to your own behavior and what you can control. These are things like continuing to follow safety precautions and guidelines and wearing a face mask around those who are most vulnerable.

What we do now will help determine the future state of this pandemic

Infectious disease expert Steven Mawhorter, MD, likes to explain why the vaccine is an important tool for ending the pandemic by using an analogy about driving a car:

Hand washing, wearing a face mask and maintaining distance from others is like defensive driving. The vaccine works like a seatbelt – very effective, but it needs to be worn in order for it to work. Medication acts like the airbag, but it only helps you after impact. COVID-19 is like a person who runs the red light as you’re moving through the intersection. If you get hit, you have all three safety tools working together to avoid the most damage.

Misinformation, caution fatigue, access and a general lack of knowledge is creating the perfect storm for vaccine hesitancy.

According to a recent poll, 1 in 4 American adults say they would refuse the COVID-19 vaccine if it was offered to them. Because of many Americans’ refusal of the vaccine, the herd immunity target will likely continue to move until more people are vaccinated.

As we move through different stages of this pandemic, it’s crucial that we continue to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Doing so will help determine the outcome of how long this will all last.   

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