It’s that time again to re-post about this important topic as the heat rises in family and group dynamics about COVID and vaccines. I’ve had my own share of diversity in opinions in my own extended family and rifts have been created and some boundaries have ebbed and shifted.
First: What decision did you make about vaccines ( please don’t tell me, just answer this question to yourself)
Second: Are you the majority or minority in your family or community who made this decision?
If you’re in the majority in either of these groups, take some time to listen to the other side. There are some families where most people chose to vaccinate and they ostracize the one who didn’t. There are other families who choose not to vaccinate and and they ostracize the one who did. Then there are gradients of opinions within each side – with varying opinions about what are the best vaccines, vaccinating kids, mandatory vaccinating and on and on.
Sometimes it feels like the safest thing to do is to find that group of people who share our views and stay in the safety of that bubble.
We can choose to do that to some degree, but if you want to spend time with friends & family who might not see the world from your perspective, that can make it much more challenging.
- Avoid all conflictual topics
Try to pass family and friend events without touching on hot topics. Sometimes this is the easiest and best option – no judgment! I probably use this one more often than I’d like to.
- Avoid all friends and family that disagree with your viewpoint
- Try to convince everyone of your viewpoint
Isn’t this the one you wish would work? I certainly do. Often, we think that reason and logic are needed for persuasion. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to work with hot topics. Incredibly, research has shown that you can’t use reason alone with issues around morality (listen to the Jonathan Haidt podcast listed below to learn more). If you’re a family who loves a good argument or debate – carry on. But be curious if this is true for all parties involved and whether this debate brings you closer or further apart.
- Discuss conflictual topics with those you love in a less argumentative way
This is by far the most challenging option, but if you want to do this, find some courage, and read on.
If you’ve read a few of my posts, you might see this as a theme. Whenever conflict arises, this is where we go first.
What are your sensitive areas? Where do your emotions get heated up? What are your assumptions and biases about the “other side?” What is something you don’t “get” about the other side?
Next – Why do you want to connect more with your family, friends, or others? How do your personal values give you reason to connect with people who have different opinions? Is it to have more peace in a relationship, community, country, or world? If you don’t want to connect with people who think differently, why don’t you?
Here is an example of applying this to politics.
I found it incredibly helpful to listen to the interview, “The Psychology of Self-Righteousness” with Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Krista Tippett. Jonathan Haidt explores reasons to be compassionate and potentially even grateful for those liberal or conservative minded people in your family.
Jonathan identifies as a strong liberal/democrat and talks about his journey from hating republicans or those with a conservative viewpoint to understanding their views, having compassion for them, and using some conservative morals in his own life. He is a social psychologist and talks about how his research influenced his journey. He also talks about how reason will not work in debating issues of morality.
- Liberal and Conservatives share two values Fairness and Compassion
- Conservatives also have the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity
- Liberals value diversity and variety more and Conservatives value structure and order more – both are important
- A country with only Liberal or Conservative values will fail – both are needed
Create a Safe Place to have The Conversation
No one likes to be ambushed. Consider your environment. If you have a way to talk about the heated issue one-to-one, that is always best. It is better to do it in a safe space where neither of you feel like you will be attacked, shamed or blamed. Have one person who is pro-choice in a group of people who are pro-life? That’s not the place. Have one person who voted from Trump in a group of people who voted for Biden? Maybe somewhere different.
But what about family dinners? What if you’re in public and the conversation just happens?
Safety also comes with your intention and words
- Have you done your own self-reflection? Or do you have an agenda?
- Do you really want to hear the other person’s point of view or not? Be Honest.
If we’ve done our own self-reflection this can help us ground and stay centred during those surprise conversations.
Ask Curious Questions
Brené Brown’s book, Braving The Wilderness is great for digging deeper into how to have those potentially divisive conversations with family. She explores how to have deeper connecting conversations with those we’re struggling to get along with. She also talks about how to address it when a person is overtly racist, sexist etc.
Want a little bit more detail on what this could look like? Read Brené Brown’s interview with Dr. Michelle Buck in the chapter four “People are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.”
Brené recommends trying these 3 steps:
a) Really listen to hear what the multiple layers of reasons are for this person’s point of view. Is it a moral or a value that is leading them to have an opinion so different than yours?
b) If you start to get into a conversation about the past (who said and did what), try to shift it to the present or look to what the person wants for the future. What do they envision your country looking like for future generations?
c) When you want to make a counter argument, see if you can say, “Tell me more” instead.
It will take some groundwork for you before you can have a conversation about a topic that is very important to you.
- You can have these conversations with a wish to share your point of view, but you must be able to go into it without expecting that you will get to.
- Jonathan Haidt talks about how it can be helpful to start a conversation by complimenting a few things that the other side has gotten right in the past.
- Or if that’s too hard, with a few things that your side has gotten wrong historically.
The Art of Asking Meaningful Questions
I remember a few years ago being introduced to Krista Tippett on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Her own podcasts are often about connecting people across lines. In the podcast Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times, she talks about deeper questions that help us connect with one another and be less separate.
- “Answer this question through the story of your life” (apply to all heated topics e.g. choosing to vaccinate or not vaccinate)
- Give your opinions through your experience, not just to give an opinion
If you want to hear more, you can start listening at 1:22:42 during the podcast.
Set Boundaries Where Needed
Brené Brown also wrote the chapter about how to speak truth to bull-shit (BS). She describes the nature of BS and how to approach to with others. These tips are also good if you are the one being ambushed by others points of view. Her main tips are:
- Approach it with generosity, by not assuming that the person is being malicious or acting out of hate. If you’re ambushed, you can approach with generosity by being calm and curious. Why do they want your opinion to change?
- Be civil by owning our “stuff” and having curious conversations. We can be civil while disagreeing or stating our boundaries. Civil isn’t the same as “nice”. Civil is firm and grounded. Notice your body language – are you open or defensive?
Brené doesn’t encourage passivity when she speaks of being civil or being generous. She talks of courage and disagreeing with grace. I liked the quote she shared from Elie Wiesel, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Speaking truth to bullshit is very difficult when emotions are high. The chapter is well-worth a read as she goes into more detail about how to approach this with people in our lives.
NOTE IN BOLD: When it comes to the topic of vaccines, it never helps to start by speaking truth to bullshit!! Assume that the other side thinks that your opinion is bullshit. Listening and curiosity as to their point of view within the context of their life is waaaay more important. You may have to set boundaries afterwards about physically getting together, but can you imagine setting this boundary and also really understanding where the other person is coming from too? What would it be like to still be in relationship with this person even though you disagree?
The Cheat Sheet
- Self-reflection first
- Create a safe space to connect with a person
- Ask curious questions
- Set boundaries where needed
A Funny Story
I will share that after writing all of this, I shared it with my husband. We then proceeded to have an argument about something extremely stupid (whether or not to buy a product or not) and not even in the realm of big issues. Later, we couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. Those thoughts of, “If I can’t even have a civil conversation with something trivial, how can I do this with bigger issues!” can be blocks to trying it with bigger issues. Upon reflection, we jumped to step 4 without doing steps 1-3. Give yourself permission to get it wrong and then try again. Take space and regroup if you try and realize you’re just not ready to hear the other side. Go back to #1.
The Gift of Wisdom and Kindness
It is a gift to be kind to others and also ourselves. Remember to be compassionate with yourself if you try and fail dramatically. Be compassionate if you notice a time you could have tried to have a civil conversation and didn’t. Find courage and then try it another time.
Emotions can get in the way of connecting in a difficult conversation. Sometimes we can be ready to have a conversation and the other person is not. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Start small by picking a topic that’s less heated and work your way to the more difficult topics. Finally, speak your opinions from your experiences: “I experienced this in my life, which is why I made this choice”.
Good luck with all those get togethers!
This blog post was originally published on December 19, 2017. It has been updated with current content.