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By Radu Atanasiu

Lately, there are two very sensitive topics on the agenda of employer-employee conversations. Topics related to the pandemic, topics that concern the personal life of the employees: vaccination and returning to the office. How should we conduct these discussions? Because I am writing this when wave four sweeps across Romania (I hope that the bad news will stop by the time you read this), I will only discuss vaccination. But the principles are the same for any sensitive debate.

When the topic of employer-employee discussion is so sensitive, an aggressive approach can do more harm than good. I know that, in companies with a rigid culture, management has drawn up and implemented policies based on constraints. But constraints have limited effect. At national level, I believe that imposing restrictions for the non-vaccinated have (and will have) effect especially on those who do not oppose strongly: “I was undecided; now I can’t go to the mall, so I’m getting the shot”. And they will choose the vaccine that offers them the fastest certificate, not the best immunity. On the others, where the opposition to the vaccine is better rooted, the constraints will only make them fiercer.

At company level, I think it is important that the vaccination policy should be set, as much as possible, after everyone has been heard. And I think these discussions need to be conducted with a lot of empathy. The subject of vaccination is felt strongly on a personal level and activates complex psychological mechanisms, yielding unexpected effects; this is, why when drawing up its strategy in this regard, a company should first develop a communication plan. Such conversations should be carefully prepared, taking into consideration some characteristics of the human mind.

The first step would be to understand the other thoroughly. To be able to describe their position back to them so they can reply: “Indeed, that is exactly my opinion, thank you, I would have liked to explain it as well as you did!”. We must, therefore, really understand the other’s individual decision to not get the vaccine. Individual, because I think that for one thousand people who do not get vaccinated we will find one thousand different reasons. But, nota bene!, empathy does not mean agreeing with that view. It means understanding it and understanding what is in the mind and heart of the one in front of us. Without understanding what motivates or inhibits them, we cannot find a way to convince them. How do we do that? By asking and listening. Really listening. Adam Grant advises us, in such a discussion, to

“argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.”

Be careful, though, when trying to understand the real position of the other on such a sensitive topic! People rationalize their position dramatically. There is often a major difference between the true motives that prevent someone from getting vaccinated and what that person says. Even to herself. Like David Ogilvy used to say, “people don’t know what they think, don’t say what they know, and don’t do what they say.” I do not think it is a company’s task to do psychological probing; what management can do, however, is to have open but discreet discussions, one-on-one, in which, without a bit of antagonism, to ask questions and offer support. They may discover unexpected things. Easy-to-manage reasons, such as supporting someone suffering from a rare disease to get advice, tests or treatment from a specialist, before getting inoculated.

The second step would be to approach the topic without pressure. All the pro-vaccine arguments I have heard or read antagonize those who are reluctant. They all have a tone of moral superiority. If not quarrelsome, at least ironic. This is totally counterproductive. Julia Galef writes in her book The Scout Mindset, that we often argue just to feel good when we hear ourselves talk, as if we did our duty to our tribe. But that does not work. She says that

“the better the message makes us feel about ourselves,

the less likely we are to convince someone.”

Pressure has the opposite effect, especially on smart people (such as our employees). And especially on someone who has publicly stated his position against getting vaccinated. Beliefs are more difficult to be rejected once they are publicly asserted, and the person in question must be offered an honorable way to do so.

The backfire effect describes what happens when a strong personal belief is contradicted. Instead of getting weaker, that belief becomes stronger. It’s not stubbornness, it’s the way the human brain works. And it works like that for everyone. Even for you.

Also, a counter-argument almost never works when it comes from someone on the other side of the barricade. We are less likely to be convinced by someone we identify as an opponent. A better idea would be to have someone who also had their doubts and worries, but in the end got the shot, to talk to employees who are not comfortable with vaccination. That person will be more empathic and will have a less abrasive tone.

Finally, Adrian Stanciu wrote in a past issue of Biz that, in fact, no one ever convinces anyone else of anything. People convince themselves, they have an internal debate, within themselves. All we can do is encourage and support one of the sides. And if it is not there, we can help creating it. How do we do this in the case of vaccination? Maybe finding, for those who have concerns, unexpected motivations to get vaccinated or perspectives they have not yet thought of.

Empathy and active listening are principles that apply to any sensitive discussion, not only to this specific topic, and not only to job-related debates. So, in order to be persuasive, listen and be kind!

This article appeared in Biz magazine.

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