One of the biggest challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, for public health leaders and individuals alike, has been communication: How to bridge the gaps when people have wildly different ideas about risk, safety, and the protective measures worth taking. Experience senior editor Schuyler Velasco spoke to Elizabeth Glowacki, a professor of public health and communication at Northeastern University, about how to navigate delicate conversations around COVID risk — especially as gathering in person becomes routine again.
Let’s start with a hypothetical: I’m planning a big trip with friends from across the country. We all agree on the big questions around COVID: masks are good, vaccines are good, we should get tested. But it turns out it’s not so straightforward. Maybe testing isn’t accessible to everybody. Or some people want to wear masks inside the house, and some don’t. How do you manage those disputes where the risk tolerance is in a gray area?
Risk is essentially perception. People may perceive a risk that is not necessarily a true threat to their health, or they may not perceive a threat that actually is a threat to their health. One of the aspects of messaging that health communication researchers work on is communicating the appropriate amount of risk to the public. Start off acknowledging that every individual perceives risk a little bit differently. Then, go from there to having conversations that might be a bit difficult to engage in.
Elizabeth Glowacki, Northeastern University professor of public health and communication
“It’s important to separate people from the problem.”
What can you do when your loved one’s risk tolerance feels incompatible with yours?
Distinguish between positions and interests. This is a point that’s brought up a lot in conversations about conflict management and negotiation. My position is what I believe on the surface. For example, “I think masks are effective.” What you want to do is dig a little deeper. That’s when you start to tap into interests. Why is it that you think masks are so effective? What are the underlying motivations and values here? That can be very helpful for facilitating some of these trickier conversations.
Let’s talk about concrete strategies for these conversations. Are there specific words you can use? What are the specifics of good communication?
Number one, you always want to start from a place of empathy. In my classes, we talk a lot about the realization that we all operate from different values. We all have different attitudes. We all have different life experiences. Recognizing that, and then entering into a conversation with empathy: “I would like to understand more about how you see the world. How can we work toward finding something that benefits the both of us?”
It’s also important to separate people from the problem. One of the reasons conflict escalates is that people attack the individual rather than address the behavior that’s bothering them. That can lead the other person to shut down or come back with something critical. You want to be very specific about the behavior that is bothering you, not immediately resorting to criticizing or judging the other person. And use “I” statements. If you start a phrase with “you,” that individual’s much more likely to shut down; whereas if you start with “I” — “Here’s how I feel about this. Here’s what I would like you to know,” the person is much more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.
Once you start the conversation off right, is there a truly a path to reaching an agreement on these issues?
You want to be explicit about options that benefit everyone. We might recognize that the two of us have different values, the two of us have different beliefs, but is there some type of common ground that we can establish? Managing conflict is much easier if you can recognize points of mutual interest and points of mutual gain.
I also think it’s helpful to ask yourself, before you have these kinds of conversations: Why do I care so much about this? Is it better to have this conversation, or is it better to just walk away? If you know you’re emotionally charged, if you’re not able to articulate your feelings to the extent that you’d like to, it might be better in some instances to just walk away from it.
How do the conversations we’re having around COVID right now compare to other fraught conversations we have in other parts of our lives — for instance, about topics like safe sex or exclusivity in romantic relationships?
These topics become stigmatized. There’s a need to communicate more openly in a way that allows them to become more normalized. My hope as a health communication researcher is that some of that language carries over into other topic areas — specifically with regard to testing. I think it’s really important that we create spaces where people can have conversations about these issues.