Skip to Navigation Skip to Search Skip to Content
Search All Centers

How to Talk to Friends and Family About Vaccination

How to Talk to Friends and Family About Vaccination

Published on August 10, 2021

Encouraging Friends and Family to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine

This is the seventh in a multipart series exploring important questions about COVID-19 and its unique impact on cancer patients. In this series, Patient Power went to the experts to get the facts about COVID-19 and how it affects prevention, screening, treatment, and research.

We have emphasized the need for a “cloud of vaccination” around people with cancer in past articles in this series. But if family members or friends are reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, what can you do to convince them?

While some people may refuse vaccination outright, most who delay receiving a vaccine may be better classified as “vaccine hesitant” or “vaccine questioning.” Perhaps people with hesitations and questions may need more time or some additional facts before moving forward. There is a lot of relevant research that may offer guidance.

We dug a bit deeper by talking with Gillian K. SteelFisher, PhD, a Senior Research Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. She serves as the Deputy Director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program and the Director of its Global Polling Unit.

Start by Listening

The advice offered consistently by researchers and public health experts is to meet people where they are, rather than challenging or belittling an individual’s beliefs. For example, many who are worried about getting a COVID-19 vaccine have concerns about safety of the vaccine. Acknowledging someone’s fears or worries may be an important first step in opening up the lines of communication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that the first step is to “lead with listening.” Perhaps begin by asking, “What are your thoughts about getting a COVID-19 vaccine?”

Dr. SteelFisher agrees. She explained that there is no magic script or “one more fact” that will likely sway people who are hesitating. But if you want to try to change the mind of someone with whom you have a personal relationship, starting a conversation is worth the effort.

Dr. SteelFisher and her co-authors published a review of 39 polls to understand public attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine in the New England Journal of Medicine. The polls were all conducted between August 2020 and February 2021. They learned that many people who expressed hesitancy were worried about the safety of the vaccines. In addition, those surveyed often distrusted the organizations related to the vaccines — pharmaceutical companies or government agencies, for example. The mix of reasons people have for hesitating may be different among many of those who continue to avoid vaccination, but distrust could be a primary driver. “This is a much steeper hill to climb,” she explained, as the distrust is so entrenched.

Having Hard Conversations

In light of that distrust, how can people talk to family or friends now? One way a person with cancer might approach this is to have a direct and personal discussion about what it would mean and how it would feel if the unvaccinated person were to get vaccinated. This is vital, as not everyone may understand that even when people with cancer are vaccinated, they may not be fully protected.

If safety and worries about the vaccine itself seem to be the main reason for hesitation, then enlisting a trusted medical professional may also be helpful. Dr. SteelFisher explained that this needs to be a compassionate person who also has technical and scientific expertise about the vaccine. A primary care doctor, an oncologist, or even a family member or friend who has a medical background may fit the bill. In some situations, this expert perspective could be just what the person needs to hear to correct misinformation or assuage worries about safety.

It is also important to remember that not everyone’s mind will be changed. For people with cancer, it may be best to avoid any indoor, close contact with those who continue to refuse a vaccine, at least until it is better understood how protected people with cancer are after vaccination.

~Susan Yox, RN, EdD

See Our Sources:

Recommended for You: