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Vaccines, Mandates, and Disagreement

Dear Crucial Skills

I have a close friend who recently told me their views on vaccines, mandates, and masks, and now I see them differently. They were vocal and opinionated. I would be lying if I said it hasn’t affected our interactions. I really like my friend, but I feel they aren’t being reasonable or rational on this topic. And every time I think about talking with them, I get annoyed and irritated. What can I do?

Vaccine Vexed

Dear Vaccine Vexed,

You can always say nothing. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean you need to vocalize that disagreement. If you’re feeling irritated, changing the story you tell yourself is a more effective antidote than trying to change your friend, which I’ll expound on below.

But if you feel you must speak up, here is a principle I want you to consider: how you talk about a difficult issue is more important than getting others to agree with you on the issue. If you understand and live by this principle, you can find understanding and connection no matter the topic; sometimes you can even find agreement.

When it comes to today’s “hot” topics, I have found that people want agreement more than a productive conversation, so they try to convince and compel others. Agreement can be a beautiful thing, but sometimes it’s not possible to achieve, especially in a single conversation. As such, understanding and connection should become our new goal.

Master Your Stories

We associate our opinions with who we are. I see myself as a rational and good person, so my opinions are good and true too. This is our default assumption. So, when we encounter an opposing viewpoint, we tend to question the viewpoint as well as the values and character of those who hold it.

Instead, take some time to ask yourself this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person think the way my friend thinks?” If your answer to the question is “They aren’t reasonable,” you need to try again. Maybe try asking the question this way: “If I were in their shoes, in their environment, and had access to their unique data stream, is it possible I might think similarly?”

Instead of writing someone off who doesn’t want to get vaccinated as a “selfish, uneducated brute,” consider why they might believe what they do. Instead of dismissing those who support vaccines, mandates, and masks as “government puppets,” consider why they might believe what they do.

Seek Understanding

Before you argue back and forth about what your state, country, or health ministry should do, seek to understand why your friend thinks what they think. Too often we argue strategies for change before we understand the basis of someone’s opinion. Ask one or more of these questions to discover it:

“Can you help me understand why you think…?”

“What experiences have led you to believe…?”

“What have you read or watched that affected your viewpoint on…?”

Some people are reluctant to listen to those with opposing viewpoints—they think listening will express agreement. But listening to others does not mean you agree with them. And understanding doesn’t show weakness. The hidden beauty in this skill is that when you push aside differences and discuss your whys you often find commonality.

Stop Trying So Hard

We put too much pressure on ourselves. We convince ourselves that if we don’t set our brother-in-law straight on the science of masks, for example, then all is lost.

The irony of dialogue is that the more you try to convince me, the more resistant I become. Treat conversations about these topics as steps along a journey, and tread lightly. When you place the weight of the world on the outcome of one conversation, you’re bound to come in hot. Instead, pause, zoom out, and let go. Then go into the conversation. Connection will go further than coercion.

Check Your Data Stream

Do you watch or listen to the same media sources day in and day out? If so, this will hamper your ability to understand and learn. What you habitually listen to, watch, and read will influence your opinions. Many news sources focus on appealing to your beliefs, and they do this by suggesting that the other side is completely clueless. Consider mixing things up and seek information from sources that challenge your viewpoints or provide data you weren’t aware of.

Make It Safe

People rarely get defensive about what you say; they get defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. The key to psychological safety is intent. You can reduce your anxiety by creating a rough conversation script that quickly establishes safety. Make it clear in the first 30 seconds that:

  • You care about their needs and concerns.
  • You respect them.

We call these first 30 seconds the “hazardous half-minute.” It often sets the tone for the entire conversation. Here are a couple of examples:

“I’m curious about something and wonder if we can talk about it. The other day you told me you think all people should be required to get the vaccine, and that those who oppose vaccines are ignorant and selfish. I know you support vaccines and mandates, and I respect your right to do so. It’s clear you value safety, and I respect that. I also want the right to make my own choices. Can we talk about it?”

If during the conversation your friend becomes combative or defensive, remind yourself that their behavior is about psychological safety, not undiscussable issues. Reestablish safety by validating their viewpoint and reaffirming your respect. That does not mean you must pretend to agree. It means you put the person before their position.

Our disagreements on this issue are not going to be resolved by organizations or governments, but by people. People talk, entities don’t. I hope these ideas help you talk with your friend, or a stranger for that matter.


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18 thoughts on “Vaccines, Mandates, and Disagreement”

  1. Lorrie

    I find it interesting that it seemed presumed the friend was anti-vax even though that was not stated in the letter.

    1. Rob519

      Hi Lorrie, I’m not sure if I told myself the same story about the article. For me, I noticed in the “Make it safe” section of the article, it provides an example in which the friend is approaching this from a pro-vaccine point of view.

      Regardless of the point of view, being able to master your story, and create a safe environment for dialogue is the start of the path.

      Having been in a similar situation, I’ve also had to ask myself “what do I really want”? And I’ve caught myself in the “I’m right, you’re wrong” response. I’ve had to re-ask that question several times while in dialogue.

    2. JWS

      Lorrie, it’s absolutely fascinating to me that I thought the same thing at first, because I only caught the first statement in the last Master Your Stories paragraph, and I was supremely irritated that Justin *JUST ASSUMED* the friend was anti-vax!

      “Instead of writing someone off who doesn’t want to get vaccinated as a “selfish, uneducated brute,” consider why they might believe what they do.”

      And then I noticed in Make It Safe, the example took the opposite tack, and I appreciated that Justin actually shared his comments to address both perspectives. Only then did I go back to Master Your Stories and realize that the statement that upset me is followed immediately by the alternate perspective:

      “Instead of dismissing those who support vaccines, mandates, and masks as “government puppets,” consider why they might believe what they do.”

      I appreciate that I learned a lot about mastering my own stories just in that little microcosm of what happens all the time in our interactions!

  2. angiewink50gmailcom

    @Lorrie, perspective is so interesting. I reread the article and I can’t find one instance where the author assumes that the friend is anti-vax. Maybe I’m overlooking things that don’t match my view, but I can’t see it.

  3. Anita Wright

    I have found people on Both sides of this particular argument to be very quick to anger and very unrelenting in their views. Prior to all of this, I could generally find a middle ground, or at least agree to disagree with people on most topics. I have found this to be extremely difficult in regard to Covid and especially vaccines. People around me have chosen a position and that’s it. There is no room for reasonable discussion. When the topic is raised, their position is declared and even attempts to understand why are shut down. I have heard people advocating for cutting off people, even family, who refuse the vaccines and I have heard people belittled and called names for wearing masks and vaccinating. It is very difficult to engage in dialogue about it.

  4. Susan Kay

    I want to come and work for your group. I have been an avid follower of your material for years. I’ve applied it at work and at home and it works! Make a trainer and send me in, Coach!

  5. Kirsten

    I have friends who are on the same page as me and friends who aren’t. I respect everyone’s decision…we each have to choose what we think is the lesser of two demons…it’s unfortunate but it is what it is.

    Why bang your head trying to understand why others decided what they did and persuade them otherwise? You haven’t had their life path, and all it does is drain you of energy and strain the relationship…not worth it.

    If you are uncomfortable being around a certain person due to their decisions, there are ways to relay that respectfully while maintaining the relationship.

    We are each all dealing with this as best we know how. Division and fighting is not the answer.

    1. Cathey

      Ditto to what Kirsten said!!!

  6. Elizabeth Venstra

    I find this topic to be particularly tricky because there are a couple of factors that separate it from a disagreement over many (if not all) hot-button issues of the past:

    1. The fundamental difference of opinion is ultimately a scientific question. Are the vaccines safe and effective? There is, in fact, a scientific standard for determining that, but some segments of the public no longer trust the scientific authorities who have been given the responsibility to apply it. That leaves us not only with no agreed-upon pool of facts, but no agreed-upon way of learning new facts.

    2. Other people’s choices for themselves can affect the health of people around them, individually and not just in a broad or abstract sense. Thus, depending on the medical vulnerability of myself or my family, it may be quite reasonable or even necessary for me to avoid being in the company of unvaccinated people who refuse to wear masks. When people feel that their physical safety is threatened, it’s hard to establish psychological safety.

    1. In Development

      I agree it’s tricky, and would add. . .

      1) The problem of “no agreed-upon pool of facts” and also “no agreed-upon way of learning new facts” is critical and overwhelming (to me). I’ve found some people on opposing sides of issues who are able to talk about this fundamental problem (obviously, not everyone, but some)–so being open and prepared when those opportunities arise is a way we can help. The epistemic disconnect absolutely makes it harder to do what the author suggests, but I’m trying hard to fight my own inclination to withdraw and give up. It’s just too important for that. We can choose to engage when it’s safe and potentially productive to do so, and change the subject when it’s not. But creating safety to talk about the epistemic problem, IMO, is one of the most important things we can be doing right now, as we are able.

      2) Absolutely, setting boundaries is a healthy thing to do when physical or psychological safety is at stake, and even in safety, many of us have limited energy for this sort of engagement. That’s worth listening to. I also have to be aware of online narratives that feed my natural tendency to withdraw–I see so many fear-based narratives that don’t always pass a reality check for my real-life situations (which have not yet actually threatened my safety, only my mood). I have also ungraciously assumed a person with opposing viewpoints was less rational and caring than they actually are, based on my (at the time) unbalanced social media feed. That’s just not who I want to be in the world. So, yes to setting healthy boundaries without apology; and also a hard squint at social media narratives that cause us to assume the worst about people.

      1. Elizabeth Venstra

        I agree with both your points. The epistemic problem disconnect is a major problem in our society right now, but as you say, not everyone is able or willing to engage with it productively. Also, I have noticed myself and others among the fully vaccinated not-super-high-risk population sometimes reacting with a greater degree of fear than is necessarily warranted by the probability of a bad outcome to themselves. It’s hard, though, because the risk in any given situation changes as we go through different waves of the pandemic, and readjusting your mental calibration of risk constantly is hard (not to mention exhausting).

  7. Cate Strumbos

    It’s also an issue in our workplace as we employ over 100 people. If we require those unvaccinated to pay for their own testing, we are likely to lose employees. This is problematic as we are in the same position as everyone else in terms of hiring. The Mandate, while I agree with it, presents a a very real conundrum for employers. I’m beginning to think that what underlies most anti-vaxxers perspective is fear. As we know, fear can be real or imagined or some combination thereof. And, when “facts” are treated as open to interpretation (as they are in today’s world), I find anti-vaxxers also more likely to quote anecdotal stories as the “inside scoop” and therefore more trustworthy. Or, they practice alternative medicine and are anti-vax for that reason-mostly these are practioners in my experience. But, underneath it all, what I find in conversation mostly is people afraid of dying or having side effects from the vaccine while the risk of catching the virus does not concern them as much or at all. They’re playing the odds. I think there is a psychological term for this kind of risk-taking.

  8. Steven Schwartz

    Ms. Venstra makes a key point here. I am a critical care physician, so my perspective is based on my over 30 years of experience in medicine and extensive medical education before that, which is not the same as even an in-depth assessment of material on the internet or even more standard news sources. As stated in the original piece, a key element of the coached response here is to assume that the other person is reasonable and rational. Assuming the person the original writer is talking about is anti-vax (admittedly not clear from the letter), this is only a reasonable and rational position if you accept that it is reasonable and rational to get your information about medical decisions from uniformed or worse, intentionally misleading sources. I agree that it’s not worth having a shouting match over, because that won’t get anyone anywhere, but this is not the same as just having different perspectives on an issue with clear facts. This is acceptance or rejection of clear facts.

    1. In Development

      Steven, I have so much appreciation for medical professionals dealing with the current epistemic mess. Oof.

      The challenge you cite, where the coached response could be ethically irresponsible, is the same conundrum regular folks wrestle with, only physicians have more at stake.

      After reading Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (which needed a new edition as soon as it went to press), I’m convinced the long-game conversations Justin Hale describes are a critical tool for talking about the epistemic divide itself–in appropriate contexts, of course.

      Because I share your concern, I have to think of Hale’s approach as complementary to unapologetic fact-based guidance. The two types of conversations work together toward the same goal of health and well-being in our communities. I don’t think either approach alone will be able to address the epistemic divide.

  9. Trying to navigate difficult days

    Justin – I commend you for giving examples of how the conversation can go on this hot button issue. These are indeed difficult and crucial conversations for our time. So many people are frightened and it seems as though many in our society are deliberately trying to stir up that fear. I will go on record as saying that I am not opposed to the vaccines but I am not able to take the vaccine or my life will truly be at risk. This isn’t just the Covid vaccine but I have this issue with all vaccines.

    Sometimes when I hear people talking about isolating the unvaccinated or denying them access to critical resources like health care, groceries, jobs, etc., I admit to feelings of anger and frustration. I’ve given many hours of thought to this and how to be open and listen while still ensuring that I am protecting my own health.

    Where I live there are mask and vaccine mandates in place. I am in constant fear of losing my job as a result of vaccine mandates where I work. I’m currently on a medical exemption which allows me to work remotely – I am never allowed to an official office meeting or gathering for any reason. I don’t have the option to be tested and attend, wear a mask and attend, the option is not available to me to work face-to-face with my co-workers. And at least every 60-days they do a new evaluation of my accommodation – if my management decides at any time that I can’t continue to do my job remotely I will be out of work.

    So my choice is to get 2 shots that will each most definitely send me to the emergency room with an allergic reaction and very possibly kill me, or spend my days wondering constantly if I am going to lose the major income in our home. The risk of dying from Covid is a smaller risk for me than from the vaccine. For my age group the survival rate for Covid is over 99.4%.

    I pray that by sharing my story it will help those struggling on both sides to give consideration to the path we are on. There isn’t one answer to this that will fit all people. Nothing in this world can be set down to “this will work for every individual on the planet” and we need to try and realize that differences of opinion are often times rooted in difference of viable options.

    1. Elizabeth Venstra

      I’m so sorry you’re in that situation. This is one of the tragic parts of the pandemic, in my view: if everyone who was able to get a vaccine did, then we would be able to rely on herd immunity to protect the people who truly cannot get the vaccine, and it would not matter greatly that the percentage of people who were vaccinated was less than 100. Just like babies under the age of 1 are protected from chicken pox by the vaccination of the older children in the community, who are able to be vaccinated safely.

  10. Julie


    I appreciate so much your advice and the importance of finding commonalities, especially on such a difficult topic where the culture encourages tribalism.

    Intelligent, informed people can disagree, and that’s okay. Thank you for this reminder.

    1. Elizabeth Venstra

      Well, the point I was trying to make is that intelligent, informed people can disagree on some types of questions, but not others. Among the questions that intelligent, informed people certainly can disagree about are value questions. And I suppose that since it’s a value question whether or not a given thing is okay (and what “okay” even means), it’s okay for us to disagree about whether or not it’s okay for people to disagree about vaccines and masks. 😉 Or, more seriously: I would say that many forms of disagreement make me sad, because I believe that they lead to human suffering, but when there is no other option, we have to be okay with things that make us sad.

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