The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 21, 2021 1:00 am

Difficult dinner-table discussions help overcome vaccine hesitancy

Nathan Gotsch

I don't know the poet Rachel McKibbens personally. But I do know she's going to have a difficult Thanksgiving.

Her father, a 68-year-old man who regularly hiked, drank protein shakes and was very active, refused to get vaccinated and died of COVID on Oct. 22 – my own father's birthday.

Her brother, Peter, who lived with him and was also unvaccinated, became infected around the same time.

Peter died Nov. 8.

Sadly, Rachel's story is not unique. When she recently shared it online, others replied with similar situations of unvaccinated family members who won't be joining them this Thanksgiving because they've also died of COVID. That includes families in northeast Indiana.

For many of us, the virus and the vaccines are likely to come up around our dinner tables on Thursday, whether we want them to or not. After nearly a year of contentious conversations regarding the vaccine, you're probably not looking to engage again on these topics with your unvaccinated loved ones. But I promise it's not a waste of time.

Despite how it can sometimes feel, vaccine resistance has actually been steadily decreasing. A series of Monmouth polls reported the number of people saying they “likely will never get vaccinated” has dropped from 24% in March to just 13% this month.

Among those who've changed their minds about getting vaccinated, the largest percentage (36%) say talking with someone they know personally is what persuaded them, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

So how can you discuss such a contentious issue without making things worse? Ian Leslie lays out a template in his book, “Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.”

1) Remember the relationship. Pressing an unvaccinated person to change their mind will only cause them to resist you. Instead, focus on trying to understand their opinion even though you disagree. This will help you both to stay relaxed.

2) Don't argue with them. An unvaccinated person is expecting to be bullied. Instead, be vulnerable. Admit you're scared and tired just like everyone else. Their surprise at your honesty is your best chance to get them to lower their defenses.

3) Strengthen their argument. Instead of rebutting their point, summarize it. “So, if I'm hearing you right, what you're saying is...” Then build on it as if you were arguing their side. Feeling listened to and understood will keep them calm and more open.

4) Be curious. If you attack their beliefs, they'll get defensive. Ask earnest questions instead and they'll feel respected. Being inquisitive signals you don't know everything and can inspire them to adopt a similarly open posture.

5) Help them question. Listen and reflect back their words, then ask polite questions that force them to really contemplate their positions. You're unlikely to change their mind in the moment, but you may lead them to a place where they change it themselves later on.

Even if the person you're talking to is strongly against vaccination, there may be others around the table who are more curious and open to being persuaded. Or they may know other unvaccinated people whom they can engage in conversation in the same way.

They are your audience as much as the person you're speaking with, and this may be the only time they hear someone they know personally advocating for vaccines. Simply telling your own story – including the hesitation many of us experienced before deciding to get vaccinated – can be a powerful argument for them to do the same.

It's not your job to have all the answers, but if you're worried about how to respond if challenged, we've compiled the truth about the most common vaccine fears on our website,

It's a great resource for people with legitimate questions and concerns. You'll also find success stories of others like you who've been able to change people's minds.

If a family member has been influenced by misinformation, take it seriously and offer to investigate with them. Most anti-vaccine stories about illness and death can be quickly debunked with a simple Google search.

Above all, remember these are people you love and care about. Their lives are worth an uncomfortable conversation or two. I'm confident Rachel McKibbens – and the many others missing family members this Thanksgiving – would agree.

Nathan Gotsch is director of Bring It Up, an organization working to raise the vaccination rate in northeast Indiana.

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