The Vaccine Debate: How to Turn an Argument into a Productive Dialogue

What if we could transform a contentious confrontation into a cooperative dialogue?

two people talking

Why do so many Americans refuse to trust or believe the latest scientific breakthroughs or research reports?

If we could figure that out, we might also be able to figure out why so many employees roll their eyes in skepticism or cynicism or feel patronized when their bottom line-obsessed CEO waxes poetic about building a caring company culture.

Psychology has a term for this. It's called "transference."

Transference occurs when someone takes their existing feelings about people in their lives who speak about certain topics and transfers them onto others, in this instance, the experts or leaders in question. To make matters worse, the way analytic, logical scientist and engineer types communicate often triggers resentment and animosity in people whose beliefs and actions are determined more by emotions and feelings. When less emotional types respond in a flat, unemotional way, more emotional types perceive them as cold and condescending.

In these situations, emotion-driven people may use their emotions as a way to manipulate logic-driven people to agree with them. When that doesn't work, emotion-driven people become even more upset. That may cause the logic-driven person to become even "colder" because they now emotionally resent efforts to manipulate them.

What if we could transform a contentious confrontation into a cooperative dialogue?

What follows is a hypothetical conversation between Paul, a pro-vaccine advocate, and Joe, an anti-vaccine advocate.

Paul: I noticed you seem to be against vaccinations. What's going on?

Joe: I don't think you can trust scientists or researchers.

Paul: I understand that's what you believe, but what's really going on?

Joe: Well, nobody asked me what I thought, they just told me what I should think. All my life scientists and researchers have talked down to me and acted like know-it-alls. When I express my views I know they're angry, but they make it worse by trying to cover it up with polite language.

Paul: I know it can appear that way, but I'm still not getting what has you so frustrated and even ticked off. What else is going on?

Joe then goes on to explain that he often feels as if experts are laughing at him behind his back, or calling him an ignorant fool who acts like a child. Paul validates his feelings, but continues to inquire about what else is bothering him. But his efforts to placate Joe backfire — Joe now feels as if Paul is the one treating him like a child, all to convince him to get the vaccine.

The conversation continues:

Paul: You know, I think you're right. I think I do have a bias that research and science are reliable and that people who don't agree with that are acting like stubborn children. I guess what is really going on with me is that when I think of lives that could have been saved if people believed the research and science, it gets me all riled up. And I am guilty of trying to literally "sweet talk" you into agreeing and I have been talking down to and trying to manipulate you. I am truly sorry. You do deserve more respect than that. I apologize. Will you accept my apology?

Joe: At least you owned up to it and apologized. Nobody like you has ever done that with me. And that helped because even if I'm not as educated as a lot of people, I still deserve repect. And now I have an apology for you.

Paul: What's that?

Joe: I haven't been all that cooperative with you because I'm scared. I'm scared I'm going to be out of work. I'm scared I won't be able to take care of my family. I'm scared I really might be too stupid to learn the new skills necessary to get a job. I'm scared that I'm over 50 and unhirable. And I'm scared to let anyone else know how scared I am.

Then, it's Paul's turn. Paul shares that he's scared, too — scared that the collective efforts of his peers in the science and medical fields won't be enough to keep things from getting worse. Even though he's trying to make the world a better place, he often feels powerless.

Joe is taken aback because he's never received an apology from anyone in Paul's position and immediately becomes less argumentative.

How did Paul disarm and difuse the conflict between him and Joe?

By owning up to being disrepectful, apologizing for it and even dropping his agenda, Paul neutralized Joe's resentment and may have opened Joe's mind in the process. In the end, Paul realized that he can sometimes be closed-minded, and Joe realized how quick he is to attack someone who doesn't mean any harm. The two resolve to keep talking and work to better understand why the other feels so strongly one way or another.

You never know where turning an argument into a dialogue could lead.

The information provided here is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for advice concerning your specific situation.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
What's this?
Content labeled as the Expert Forum is produced and managed by Newsweek Expert Forum, a fee based, invitation only membership community. The opinions expressed in this content do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Newsweek or the Newsweek Expert Forum.