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How to talk to your unvaccinated loved ones about the COVID-19 vaccine

The benefits of getting the COVID-19 vaccine are clear, with research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from the virus than people who are vaccinated.

But there are still so many opinions and beliefs out there about the vaccine, and still so many people who are hesitant to get it. Chances are you know someone who falls in that category.

So, how do you talk to that person you love who is choosing not to get vaccinated—without causing a fight or hurting your relationship? Here are a few pointers from psychologist Kenleigh McMinn, PhD, for how to approach these tough but necessary conversations.

Lead with compassion.

It’s really important to think about preparation not only in terms of the information you’re trying to bring but also how you prepare yourself from an emotional perspective.

Lean into your compassion. Come into the conversation open-minded. Frame it from a compassionate perspective and come from a place of caring and wanting to help—not trying to convince or win an argument.

Let your loved one know how worried and concerned you are for their safety. Try saying something like, “Hey I’ve been seeing the case numbers going up or other people getting really sick. I’m concerned that you’re not vaccinated. Can we talk? I want to learn more about where you are with this.”

Be genuinely curious, not confrontational.

It’s important to take a non-confrontational stance when having these conversations. Be genuinely curious about the other person’s thoughts and opinions. Confrontation only reaps defensiveness. Invite openness rather than making people build walls up.

Being curious about their hesitations or reasons for not getting the vaccine can also help you know how best to proceed in the conversation. Someone who is hesitant because they don’t believe COVID-19 is as severe as it really is might respond more to emotional stories of what COVID-19 really looks like versus simple facts.

If someone is concerned that the science behind the vaccine isn’t well-studied or is worried about side effects, that’s where it can be more helpful to share facts.

Arm yourself with the facts.

A lot of people worry they have to become immunology experts to talk about the vaccine, but that’s not true. You just need to know the high-level information to communicate effectively and know where to direct someone for more information or research (like the CDC, World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine and other reputable organizations).

If someone in your circle starts sharing misinformation or brings up a point you don’t believe is accurate, it’s important to ask where they learned that. If they share something that’s not a reputable source, you can say something like, “You know, I’ve heard some mixed reviews about that source. Would you be willing to also read or listen to xyz?” and provide a more valid source.

Come from a place of curiosity and genuinely wanting to know their perspective on it, and ask if they’re open to hearing more.

That said, avoid overwhelming people with the facts. It’s not helpful to lay out a bunch of statistics or overly complex scientific explanations that they might not understand.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Try to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Try to understand where they’re coming from and why they may believe what they believe. Does it have to do with the way they were brought up, political leaders they believe in or the people they’re around? That can help build your understand and compassion, and avoid putting them on the defense.

Know when to walk away.

If the conversation starts to get tense or argumentative, just hit pause. Don’t try to escalate. It can be hard to keep your cool in those moments, especially if it’s a romantic partner, parent or someone you really care about.

This depends so much on the situation, the individual you’re talking to and your relationship, but it’s usually fair at that point to say, “Hey, I can see we’re getting worked up about this. I don’t want to argue or hurt our relationship. Can we pick this up another time?”

At the end of the day, everyone has the right to make their own decisions—even if we feel like it’s the wrong decision. We can’t force anybody to change the way they feel, whether it’s about the vaccine or anything else in life.

Evaluate your feelings and your relationship with this person. Is this someone you still want to be really close to or is it someone you might need to consider setting some boundaries with? Plus, if you know they’re not getting vaccinated or taking precautions, you might want to keep that in mind purely from a safety perspective.

Remember that we’re all human.

It sounds simple and silly, but avoid things like name calling, jumping to criticisms in any way  and flat out telling them they’re wrong. These are all really counterproductive and will only make them turn off or escalate emotions.

Retain some respect for the other person as a human. Remember, they’re still dealing with a lot of uncertainty, as are we all. We’re all still going through this together, and fighting only makes it harder.

These conversations are not easy, especially when it’s someone very important to you. Show them that you’re listening and that you care. After all, that’s why you’re having the conversation in the first place.

Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines.

About the author

Kenleigh McMinn, PhD
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Kenleigh McMinn, PhD, is a psychologist on staff at Baylor University Medical Center through Baylor Scott & White HealthTexas Provider Network. She specializes in health psychology with expertise in women’s health and trauma. Get to know Dr. McMinn today.

How to talk to your unvaccinated loved ones about the COVID-19 vaccine