• Stefan Szepesi

We can all agree on one thing: vaccines are the #1 dialogue exercise

There is no silver bullet. What is required is a billion better conversations.



Professionals specialized in mediation and negotiation need not look far for a great conversation exercise for students and clients alike. Controversial topics aplenty - from critical race theory to the climate crisis, from migration to woke-ism at large. One secret of convenience is this: if you want, you can also avoid these issues at the dinner table or talk past them at the office coffee machine. And why not do exactly that? Why turn that Thanksgiving dinner into a minefield or ruin that after work social event? You will need that one colleague tomorrow in the office; better not set off a trigger alert over an issue where the best possible outcome is that you politely agree to disagree.


Avoiding is the Grand Strategy that keeps families, offices and entire nations together, until a pandemic sweeps us off our feet

But avoiding as Grand Strategy is almost impossible with the issue of COVID vaccinations. If you believe everyone should get a jab, will you shut up when your unvaccinated brother visits your 70+ mother? And if you're vehemently against it because you believe it does more harm than good, or because it is a scheme by the rich and powerful, do you watch in silence when your partner gets a shot twice and then signs up for a third one? How do you have a conversation with a colleague who refuses vaccination but does want to join the meeting? How do you reason with your boss who aggressively pushes vaccinations even though there is no company policy requiring it? Tensions run high throughout families, friends groups, companies and all and every type of social cohort. And the list of adjacent issues is only growing: vaccinations for kids, access barriers to education and all types of public spaces for unvaccinated people, expulsion from arts, culture, sports and employment.


Dialogue differs from Debate the same way water differs from oil. It is one or the other and they do not mix well. Most of us give up quickly on dialogue and once the damage is done through debate, we withdraw into our own bubbles. We find that we cannot convince the other because they are so locked in their own channels, groupthink and social media echo chambers. Questions about the reliability of their sources are invariably answered by questioning your sources. We are quick to judge. Loony. Weirdo. Deranged. There is nothing more reciprocal than judgement. Except, perhaps, for listening.


Because all things COVID are difficult conversations, we mostly do not have the conversation at all. Because decisions must be taken (Thanksgiving, office Christmas parties, holidays) we skip dialogue and move to positional bargaining.


"You do what you like but you are not welcome in my home without a jab."

"You take that mask off or else".

"Office policy is clear: get in line or get out".


The result: millions of family quarrels, social isolation, psychological problems. A world of hurt.


Can it be different? Is there a magic conversation trick to convince the other side to come over to my side, which is, of course, the sane side? I think persuasion is an unrealistic goal; at least for a single conversation. The COVID debate is deeply rooted in identity, world views that were firmly rooted long before the pandemic. (Dis)trust in government, strong views on Big Pharma, political stripes and associated views on the meaning of freedom and solidarity.


I do believe it is often possible to encourage people to further investigate their own perspective. Not your perspective. Their own. That perspective may come across as fully crystallized, unchangeable, cast in concrete. But we are wrong about that. The world views of our counterparts often come across as much more firm than they really are. Part of this firmness is a defensive response to the verbal attacks (consciously or not) that we ourselves deploy. You are not the first and will not be the last having the "the vaccine conversation" with that other person. From their perspective, it often works like this: "people like you", they have met them before, they know what is coming and they are ready to fire back.


If these world views are less cast in concrete than we believe, then there is invisible room for nuance. Perhaps, over time, even doubt. Especially if we are also open to have a critical conversation with ourselves about our own world view.


How to invite others to do the same? Two practical and simple tips. Easy to understand. So much harder to apply.


1. Refrain. It starts with what you consciously refrain from doing.


  • You refrain from convincing (“it is better because…”).

  • You refrain from raining down facts on your counterpart (“did you know that…”).

  • You refrain from asking rhetorical questions (“so you don't think that…”).

  • And finally, you refrain from judging (“how incredibly deranged you are…”), including in your own mind.

This last one is the ultimate challenge. If you find it too difficult, a lower bar to clear is consciously postponing your judgment. For now. For a while.


2. Listen. So what do you do? Ask sincere questions.


Sounds simple, but in practice this is the hardest part of all. And especially if you know the person on the other side of the line only too well. Asking genuinely curious questions is often counterintuitive. "People are reactions machines", writes world-renowned negotiation expert William Ury. When we listen to answer we are in rapid-fire reaction mode. When we listen genuinely, we are in response mode. And the best response, very often, is another question.


There is a reason we call medical professionals first responders and not first reactionists; they take a step back and think before they act in a crisis situation.

So instead of reacting after being triggered (“you are wrong”, “I heard you say something illogical right there”, “you call that a reliable source!?”, "I cannot believe how brainwashed you are"), you opt for a response. Pause, reflect and respond with at least one follow-up question: “how does that work?”, “what are the reasons for this?”, “how do you arrive at that opinion?”, “what makes you think that way? ”. If you cannot think of a question or suspect that your tone will give away the bit of judgement you could not get rid of (yet), you can opt to summarize as precisely as possible what the other person has said (and yes, without judging what has just been said...). And ask: "what did I miss in my summary?". Good odds there will be additions and nuances that give much more color and that invite the other to look at their own world view from a bit more distance. Self-reflection is a whole lot easier when you do not feel you are under attack.


Ok, and then what? Let it simmer for a while, like your grandmother's stew.

Simple in theory. In practice it is not very easy to apply to hot topics that directly affect you and your loved ones. The temptation of flight or fight is huge. But here, too, practice makes perfect. Or at least, it can temper the reaction machines. Difficult conversations are not the specialist terrain of trained mediators, After 1,5 years of global, national and local crises, we do not have that luxury. Whatever you think about COVID, vaccines, Big Pharma and Big Brother Government, attacking the divisions in our societies must be part of the answer. There is no silver bullet or grand strategy to make peace. It's up to us individually, in having better conversations. A billion of them would be a good start.


Post translated and edited from original in Dutch at WesselinkVanZijst.nl