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Drop The Pressure, Threats And Agendas: Talking To The Unvaccinated About Getting A COVID-19 Vaccine

A woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Chandrea Williams receives a coronavirus vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic hosted by the Central Texas Allied Health Institute and African American Youth Harvest Foundation in March.

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Most people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 probably know someone who is eligible to get the vaccine but still has not. Not someone who will absolutely, positively never get it no matter what — but someone who is neither a firm "yes" nor a firm "no." This group is sometimes called the "movable middle."

Despite pleadings from public health officials and copious data about the safety, efficacy and necessity of vaccines, why won't some in that "movable middle" get the shot? How might they be moved down the path to getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

For some, it may come down to who and what they trust.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says some people will automatically dismiss public health messages from a government institution or the media based on how, growing up, they saw their family source and trust information.

And, "there is some historical precedent for government at times misguiding or having reason to be distrusted by folks and by certain communities," Rockman says.

She says people may also disregard scientific fact — no matter the source — if they're engaging in cognitive distortions like "all-or-nothing thinking," or if they feel forced or stuck.

But Rockman says there are ways in which vaccinated people in the "trust networks" of those in the movable middle can leverage that trust and talk to the unvaccinated about getting a COVID-19 vaccine:

  • Bring integrity and leadership — not pressure — to the conversation
  • Harbor no hard-and-fast or hidden agenda
  • Offer multiple options
  • Do not use death or fear to motivate
  • Practice empathy
  • Understand your own anger and sadness about the pandemic

Listen to the edited interview above or read the transcript of the extended interview below to learn more about the role trust can play in moving someone to consider getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: Why do some people distrust institutions like the government or media, especially when it comes to scientific facts about something like the COVID-19 vaccine?

Junice Rockman: I do think, on some level, [it depends] on how people grew up individually in terms of if you should trust outside information or if you should only source in your own community or in your own home, or if you should only trust your own gut, versus some people who were raised like, hey, if it's written, it is law.

And I also want to say that there is some historical precedent for government at times misguiding or having reason to be distrusted by folks and by certain communities.

There are also people that no matter where the information comes from, they don't trust the science and they don't trust the data. What's going on when people don't trust something that has been proven through scientific research and rigor?

There is probably almost always a way to refute an argument if you don't agree with it. And I've even had people say, "Well, show me the data," and then somebody shows the data and they're like, "Well ...," and then they still come up with an alternative idea or an alternative belief or an alternative reality.

I think from a clinical perspective, from a behavioral health perspective, another thing that we're dealing with is cognitive distortions. And I see this not just on an individual level. I see it on a collective level. There are at least 10 different cognitive distortions.

One of the cognitive distortions is all-or-nothing thinking. It's either black or white. It's like there's no middle ground. Another cognitive distortion is jumping to conclusions. Another cognitive distortion is magnification or minimization. And I think with this entire vaccination and mask debate, I can see these cognitive distortions showing up in the way that we're operating and interacting together in so many ways.

I also think that people don't like to be forced to do anything, and I think that people don't like to feel stuck or feel forced. And so all the data in the world doesn't change their central nervous system’s reaction to feeling pressure.

And then the other thing is that we're talking about life-or-death issues. And in all honesty, I think that we have an issue with dealing with death in our culture. And so instead of even dealing with and processing death and dying and life cycles and death cycles, we're kind of attacking each other.

For people who don't trust large institutions or don't trust government or the media, who are they more likely to trust instead? Who do they need to hear information from to be able to take it in and maybe even contemplate it? Maybe not 100% believe it, but at least agree to think about it?

I do think that the people that a lot of folks are looking to trust are our elders, parents, teachers and influencers — whether that be in media, entertainment, arts or even social media. I also think people are looking to trust people who don't have an agenda for them.

I remember being in graduate school, one of my mentors saying it's so important to express to your clients and your patients that, "I do not have an agenda for you. My only hope or intention for you in these sessions is that I can help you become the highest expression of your potential. And I want to customize that experience for you." And that really lets people let their guard down. So we need to hear from someone who we don't feel like has some hard-and-fast agenda or a hidden agenda.

And it has to start at a grassroots level, because I think that, unfortunately, we've become jaded in this age of information. There are so many voices now that we have access to at the tap of a device all day long, all night. Twenty-four hour cycles. I think it has to happen at a grassroots level and in our own homes, our own communities, in our own schools and from folks that we do not feel like have agendas except for our well-being.

For people who find themselves in a “trust network” — someone who may be seen as a trusted person to go to with questions or for information — how can people in that situation leverage that trust to talk with that loved one about something that might be controversial or charged, like getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

Number one: Holding an energy of integrity and leadership encompasses addressing that fear-mongering and divisiveness and manipulation and gaslighting and coercion and pressure. No one wants to feel pressure. Remember peer pressure conversations from middle school and high school? No one wants to feel that. So, remember to hold the energy of integrity and leadership.

Then also offer multiple solutions. If you want to talk with someone about being vaccinated, also talk to them about wearing a mask. Also talk to them about reducing their interactions with the general public. Are there ways that they can reduce the number of times or the number of places that they have to go in a week while we are at these higher numbers?

Also talk to them about ways to build their immunity to help improve their overall health outcomes. Include it as a holistic conversation, right? Because no person really wants to hear, "This is the one and only way, and if you don't do this, then I'm diametrically or completely disappointed in you forever and ever more."

And lastly, do not use death and fear as a way to motivate. I'm not saying it's not a motivator. Don't get me wrong. It is clearly. However, I think we can reframe it from a standpoint of: "I want to see you here. I want to see you do well. I want to see our communities do well. I want to see our children do well. I want to see us get through this in history together. I want to see us healthy. I want to think about this as a community health issue and not politicize it and not demonize either side." I think if we if we use that kind of language, I think we'll get so much further so much faster.

And we have to practice empathy. Even if you don't understand or agree with their theories around it, empathize with them.

People are angry at those who have not gotten vaccinated as cases go up and hospitalizations are going up. How can people have those conversations and try to have empathy from a centered place and not a place of charged anger?

I think we have to even change our energy that we come to the conversation with. ... If it feels intense and feels shaming or damning or judgmental or like you're steamrolling someone in a conversation. It's the wincing. It's the subtle, subtle breath that we take. The sigh. The raising of an eyebrow. The shoulder posture. The energy that we bring to conversation. So, think about that first and foremost.

One of the things that I found in my experience is that when there is a problem or something that is so egregious that is happening that we cannot wrap our minds around, we start to scan our brains back and forth. And if we can't find a logical answer for very illogical, hard things, then we start to blame typically ourselves.

That's where a lot of self-blame comes in. And that's why you hear people say, "I wish I just could have done something." You're like, "How could you have done something? It was a burning building? There was nothing more you could do." You get that on a logical level, but the brain wants resolution.

So, I think what's happening at a collective clinical level is that the brain is looking for resolution for these deaths, for the changes in our economy, for the changes in how we work, for the changes in how we socialize. Anger is a secondary emotion. And underneath your anger is sadness, and that's what you need to address, because the sadness will connect you to the feeling.

If you can deal and feel, then you can heal. So that's how you can have empathy, not only for someone else, but for yourself first, because anger is a secondary emotion. But we go to it because it feels more powerful than sadness.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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