'Give up on the idea that you've got some magic power': How a negotiation expert would reach the willfully unvaccinated

On the surface, a vaccine hailed as the solution to ending a deadly pandemic seems something that would be widely welcomed. Yet even after more than 660,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, intense divisions persist between those inoculated against the virus and those who are not. 

All adults were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, meaning that people within the pro- and anti-vaccine sides of the argument have each had ample time to intensify their viewpoints, double down on their arguments, bypass civility and reach a position where any discussion of the COVID-19 vaccine is now largely a matter of conflict management.

To help leaders and organizations actually communicate with the vaccine avoidant, Becker's spoke to G. Richard Shell, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Shell has served as a consultant for the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, among dozens of other organizations, and authors a number of books on persuasion and negotiation, including "The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas." 

He spoke about factors that have divided the nation into two distinct and often volatile groups and shared communication strategies that may better resonate with people who remain staunchly opposed to the shots — a group that is shrinking and reachable, according to a recent survey that found just 20 percent of Americans are unlikely to get the vaccine. 

How we got here 

Many who do not understand the scientific process have developed an intensifying mistrust of public health experts who have shared information about COVID-19. Now that mistrust has extended to experts advocating for COVID-19 vaccines, Mr. Shell said. 

When information about COVID-19 began to emerge — before it was declared a pandemic in March 2020 — officials from the CDC and other public health agencies appeared on national media outlets to say mask wearing wasn't yet necessary. 

In a since-deleted tweet from February 2020, Jerome Adams, MD, the surgeon general at the time, wrote "Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!" 

Since then, scientists' understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 spreads has advanced, with an extensive body of research showing masks are an important tool to mitigate the spread. 

"The messaging about what to do to beat the virus has been this sort of moving target," Mr. Shell said, adding that while most science is conducted behind a proverbial curtain, giving researchers time to go back and dissect the data before sharing it or offering public advice, there was no time for that during a worsening COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the virus moving fast, much of the scientific messaging was done publicly. For the average person, who may not recognize that studying a disease is a rolling adventure, the communication discrepancies may have become a source of suspicion. 

"They think the experts are supposed to have the answers, and here, we've seen the experts change their minds," Mr. Shell said. "They're [unvaccinated people] being asked to take faith that this is in fact the answer when they've already been sold several other answers that turned out to be incorrect," he said, referring to the vaccine. 

Additionally, when people have strongly held beliefs, they see the opposing view as much more than a different viewpoint.

"When you have passionately held beliefs, people are invested in them with their identity. It's not just an attitude. They see the contrary … as a threat to their worldview — an existential threat," he said, adding that the division surrounding vaccine mandates is much like that observed with the abortion debate. 

That existential threat is another factor that likely contributes to the hostility seen between the vaccinated and willfully unvaccinated, Mr. Shell said.

What further fuels conflict 

In a conflict, people often regard themselves as acting rationally, but tend to link the other person's behavior or action as evidence of their character or personality — a concept called the fundamental attribution bias. 

"We explain our own behavior when we violate the rules," Mr. Shell said. 

For instance, if someone is speeding on the highway because they need to quickly get to the emergency room to be with their loved one, they have justified their behavior. 

"It's a pretty easy thing to do, but when we see someone else behave the exact same way, if someone else was speeding down the highway … we immediately leap to the conclusion that it's evidence of their character and that they're reckless, they're a liar — you name it," Mr. Shell said. 

It's a recognizable concept in the current level of vaccine-related tension. When people simply wave off vaccine opponents as careless or irrational, that's fundamental attribution bias at play — a cognitive bias known to escalate conflict, yet one that is extremely common. 

"Fundamental attribution bias is the cause of huge amounts of conflict because we're overestimating the amount that other people's behavior is evidence of their character," Mr. Shell said. 

A better approach to persuasion 

The first limitation to understand: "You can never ever convince someone to change a belief," Mr. Shell said. "You can only give them information, options, other places to go and get the information to help them change their own beliefs. You have to give up on the idea that you've got some magic power." 

Additionally, trust and source credibility are invaluable when it comes to persuasion, but not everyone regards the same experts as credible. While most people recognize medical expertise, some who oppose vaccines may see other types of expertise, such as church leaders, as equally credible. 

This creates a potential opening for hospital leaders struggling to get through to staff members who are opposed to the vaccine. Instead of over-relying on known public health experts and government officials to deliver the messaging, think about who else people consider credible, Mr. Shell suggested. 

"For a hospital CEO, I'd be partnering with the local faith community, local radio talk show hosts, a local primary care physicians network ... and really look at the source credibility of the messaging that's going out to these folks." 

Mr. Shell also suggested hospital leaders take time to connect with community members or employees who used to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine and have changed their minds. Relative to public health officials, hearing their perspective may be more meaningful to many who remain unvaccinated. 

"Let's go have a little army of the people who changed their minds," he said. "Let's have workshops and people can listen to the testimony of the people who changed their minds … let those people speak for us instead of the people in authority." 

And while it seems simple on the surface, listening and understanding go a long way when communicating with others who have opposing views. 

"That's the way to unlock," Mr. Shell said. "Let's be compassionate and take perspective, and not be too judgemental of the people who are on the other side of this argument. That's usually the beginning of a good conflict management strategy; to be able to see the other person's point of view and not endorse it but to say, 'You know, I can see how people might think that, and it's not just carelessness or perversity or some sort of irrationality that can't be understood.'" 


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