Seven tips to change someone’s mind

Conversations with vaccine (/science) sceptics are difficult at best. Here are seven tips if you actually want to change someone’s mind.

The internet is ripe with misinformation and conspiracy theories about science. What in other times is just “that person” on Facebook who we constantly consider to unfollow, has lately become a larger problem:

A recent poll revealed that only 40% of French citizens plan to get vaccinated against coronavirus. That’s not enough. Current estimates suggest that at least 65 to 70% of the population needs to be immunised before we may see significant changes to the current situation. 

While the United Kingdom showed overall more enthusiasm for the jab, the proportion of Brits planning to get inoculated dropped by two per cent between October (79%) and December (77%). An updated number for January is unavailable, but if the slight downward trend continues, we’re in trouble.

I feel the least I can do is talk to people and clear up any false beliefs about vaccines. Yet, conversations with vaccine sceptics are difficult at best.

The most frequent problem is people getting defensive. That is not their fault – it is a communication problem. We often trigger the other person’s emotional defences before they can evaluate our argument.

If you are like me and have some friends and family members you’re trying to persuade to get vaccinated, here are seven useful techniques that help to navigate such difficult conversations:

  1. Create a positive atmosphere
    A friendly tone is key to opening up the other person. If people feel uncomfortable, they are more likely to shut down and wrap up the conversation as quickly as possible. A useful strategy is to approach the discussion with curiosity for the opposing position rather than starting off with counterarguments.

  2. Go slow
    If you have good arguments, it may feel intuitive to get them out early in the conversation. However, coming in strong can be detrimental to the discussion. The knee-jerk reaction to information that clashes with our own believes is rejection unless we have time to integrate the new ‘data’. So, let the other person speak first and ask follow-up questions to their points until you fully understand their position.

  3. Listen intently
    Suppose your conversation partner says something you strongly disagree with or know is wrong. In that case, you may want to jump in with a counterargument immediately. However, the better strategy is resisting the urge to point-fight and instead listen intently. Sometimes you may find your mind already preparing counterarguments while the other person is talking. However, that way, you miss at least half of what they say and any information about how they arrived at their conclusions. To avoid this, try summarising the other person’s points clearly and accurately before moving on to your own arguments. There shouldn’t be any exaggerations or distortions in those accounts, so it’s good practice to ask your conversation partner to confirm that you understood them correctly. If they disagree, pause and clarify.

  4. Level with them
    The worst thing that can happen to a conversation is losing eye level. Most people are curious, but the fewest enjoy being lectured. So, especially as scientists, we have to refrain from using any jargon our conversation partner wouldn’t use themselves. That may include commonly known abbreviations such as ‘DNA’. The better choice is using analogies from the other person’s life and examples they can relate to. For instance, I recently found myself describing a vaccine as a ‘training program for the immune system’ when talking to a weightlifter.

  5. Speak as an individual
    With the comforts of a substantial body of data behind your position, it can be tempting to claim objective reality by saying things like: “Studies have shown that…” However, that can feel patronising to your conversation partner, and will likely trigger their defences. The better approach is indicating that you speak from our individual perception of reality. Alternative phrasing include: “According to studies that I read” or “The way I understand the data…”

  6. Be a good winner
    The most delicious moment in any discussion is when the other person realises they are wrong. However, try and avoid celebrating these moments. If you highlight any concessions they make to their position, your conversation partner may shut down or even reverse their position. The better strategy is framing the conversation as a shared quest for understanding each other instead of a tug-o-war. Instead of pointing out that they joined your point of view, just calmly note that you seem to agree now.

  7. Embrace the possibility to fail
    Finally, it’s important to remember that not everybody can be convinced. Some people feel strongly about their point of view beyond argumentation. It may be that they enjoy the subversiveness of it or that they simply mistrust scientists. If your conversation partner seems impervious to your arguments, the best thing you can do is thanking them for the discussion and moving on.

I hope these techniques are useful to you. Please let me know how they are working for you. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: