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?
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.
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.