How to Talk to Vaccine-Hesitant Friends and Family

Vaccine hesitant


Experts Maya Goldenberg and Julie Parsonnet share some tips for handling tough vaccine-related conversations with your loved ones. 


Even as coronavirus vaccines become more widely distributed, a significant chunk of Americans remain unsure or skeptical about the vaccine.

In fact, new research found that 22 percent identify as somewhat or fully resistant to vaccination. But it’s also more nuanced than you might think: other surveys revealed that Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to wait and see before they get a vaccine (but are also less likely to say they definitely won’t take one compared to white adults).

That’s why navigating these conversations with friends and family can often be tricky and even sometimes daunting. To help us figure out how to best broach the topic, we turned to infectious disease expert Dr. Julie Parsonnet and philosophy professor Maya Goldenberg, who specializes in the subject of vaccine hesitancy (which is also the title of her book, Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science). 

While no single approach is going to convince everyone, they share some strategies with us (you can also find the CDC’s own recommendations here).

What to Say to Anti-Vaxxers or Vaccine Hesitant Friends and Family 

Prepare for a potentially emotionally-charged conversation

Try not to lecture your family or friends about the vaccine. Parsonnet said some people have a tendency to rely more on their intuition and emotions when making choices, so trying to rationalize and explain “can’t overcome what people feel in their hearts.” 

“I love the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Laureate and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman,” she told us. “He talks about how human people think.”

Start from a place of understanding and listen

Both Parsonnet and Goldenberg agreed that the most important thing you can do for a friend or loved one who has some vaccine concerns is to hear them out and let them voice their concerns.

“The worst thing we can do is dismiss people’s concerns,” Goldenberg told us. 

Similarly, Parsonnet advised acknowledging someone’s worries and then trying to probe and find out what would make them less concerned. Sometimes this might lead to pieces of information they might not have heard of or thought of before, according to Goldenberg. 

“A lot of times people send wild stories and what it comes down to is, there’s just a piece of information they’re missing and you might be able to help them find it,” she said. 

Acknowledge some of the uncertainties surrounding the vaccine

Sometimes the best conversations are also about just being transparent…even when you don’t have all of the answers. Goldenberg believes this is especially true when talking to vaccine hesitant parents. 

While the FDA has approved the vaccinations for kids 12 years and older, there’s still no vaccine approved for kids under than 12 (though Dr. Fauci expects a vaccine to be available for this age group by early 2022). Still, it’s worth noting that the vaccine has already been proven to be 100 percent effective for teens ages 12 to 18. 

“They’re struggling to work through the uncertainty and the gaps in knowledge like everyone else and trying to make the best choice that they can,” Goldenberg said. 

On the bright side, as a friend or loved one, you may be in no better position to help someone who may have fears or concerns that are preventing them from getting the vaccine. 

“The best way to modify people’s opinions is to develop a personal relationship with them that is relatively deep and based on respect,” Parsonnet said.  “Hard, hard, hard to do during an epidemic.”