This episode is airing over Christmas, I know. But I wasn’t about to wait another 2 weeks to send some support to all of you doing the important work of communicating about the COVID vaccine – and other vaccines – as we close out this year. In this episode, you’ll learn 4 ways to stop and think about whatever vaccine communication you’re doing -to make sure you’re saying what you mean to say.
For very, very good reasons, health professionals all over the world are focused on communication about the COVID vaccines. If you’re one of these people, stay tuned. I’m going to give you four ways to stop and think about your vaccine communication.
Welcome everybody. This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. Today’s episode sponsored by Maven Roth Group. Maven Roth thanks our Healthcare Heroes for all their hard work during this incredibly difficult time. Maven Roth can help take some of the work of your already full plate, because they’ve been teaming up with hospitals and practices for years, helping them communicate with their audiences through print, social media, and more. Now let Maven Roth help you create and share your COVID-19 messaging. Visit MavenRoth.com today.
Now as nice as it would be to have a one-size-fits-all way to communicate about the vaccine, to everybody, that would work 100% of the time, we know that that’s not realistic. So what I’m going to talk to you about today is how you can stop and think about whatever vaccine communication you’re doing, to help make it better–in terms of making sure that your words are in line with your values. Now the context for today’s episode is of course the COVID vaccine. In the series, I try to keep things applicable across contexts. So I’m going to invite you to think about what’s beneath the hood of your communication about vaccines–COVID-19’s vaccines, and any others. Because reflective practice can help us get a little bit of distance from the day-to-day, and take a look at what we’re doing– get some emotional distance on this very emotional topic– and see if we’re saying what we mean to say, and if our words really are in line with our values.
All right so let’s go. Number 1. What kind of person are you trying to be or sound like? If you’re writing, what kind of a voice are you giving your organization? How’s your language reflecting this? Communication is about more than imparting information. Said it before and I’ll say it again. One of the things that’s also going on is you’re hoping to show yourself as a certain kind of person or organization. You can’t help but speak from your own position. And when it comes to vaccinations, your position is probably: do it! You’re also speaking from the blend of the personal and professional cultures that you’re part of. You’re speaking from your organization’s history. Speaking from the history of health care and public health. And when it comes to vaccines, these collective histories are complicated.
Nonetheless, we can all fall into the trap of thinking that our ways of seeing things are normal or common sense. So, when speaking or writing about vaccines, remember where you stand, how you’re seeing, how you got there.
If you’d like a bit of practice, listen closely to the next person you hear speaking. What kind of person do they reveal themselves to be through their language?
All right, number 2. Might’ve heard this one coming: what kind of person do you think your patient is? Or if you’re writing, what kind of people do you think you’re writing to? What do you tend to think of people in that social group? How does your language reflect this? Now conversations about vaccines can present challenges because of the tendency to focus on social groups who are either expressing interest in not being vaccinated, or they’re expressing skepticism, or they’re expressing their intention to remain unvaccinated. Now when you’ve got the majority of health professionals who are on #teamvaccinate, there is a kind of built-in battle! Think about how many well-meaning posts that you’ve seen, or presentations, or talks about vaccines, and how many of them are framed kind of antagonistically.
Conflict isn’t great for any relationship, and it can bog down communication. An Us-Versus-Them attitude can also have the effect of short-circuiting any attempts you would have made to try to find out people’s reasons for thinking what they think. So take a close look at your language. Keep an eye on how your word choice or framing—even conversational dynamics–might unintentionally be reflecting biases or stereotypes. Including those about social groups such as anti-vaxxers, or people who are reluctant to be vaccinated. Here’s a trick that can help you become sensitized to framing and word choice in language. The next time you hear someone speaking in the media, or you read a statement from an organization, or even see an ad: ask yourself who they think you are. How can you tell through the ways they use language and images?
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All right number 3. What do you tend to assume normal people do in terms of keeping healthy? What do you consider normal knowledge, beliefs, assumptions about vaccines and vaccination? I ask this because when we’re not hearing from a person or a group what we think is normal or basic or fundamental, that perceived gap between what we expected to hear and what we’re hearing can become our focus. That is, sometimes we can focus on a person or group’s perceived weaknesses, based on what we think is or should be normal. This risks getting close to a deficit perspective.
You’ve heard me talk about deficit perspectives before. They can hurt the relationship. They can also hurt your chances of being helpful. Communication about vaccines can surface differences in people’s knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions real quick! And once you get to thinking that you’re not on the same sheet of music as the person you’re talking to, or writing to, all sorts of kind of mental and emotional barriers can emerge. This is because it can be easy to regard the ways that other people understand vaccines, or act upon health information, as problematic–especially when it’s not what you think is or should be normal. Your assumptions about what’s normal inform the style and the content of your communication. Often unconsciously! So be ready to look closely at what your assumptions are, ‘cuz they’re turning up in your words.
Okay finally number 4. If your audience’s attitude toward vaccines and vaccinations differs from yours, how, or under what circumstances might their attitude make sense? This one is perhaps the most difficult to do, and I’ll argue it’s the most important, if you really want to educate and not just lecture, or lose your chance. Let’s dig in!
Health professionals like yourself have some of the best inform stances on vaccines and vaccinations on the planet. They’re built on decades of research and some of the latest science! They’re supported by your study. They’re enriched by your years of experience and your participit– your participation in professional communities. The rest of us non-specialists are also walking around with ideas about vaccines or vaccinations. These ideas may or may not have scientific merit, but just like yours, they are based on our experiences, our knowledge, and our communities. Differences in ideas can feel like barriers to communication. But as the holder of the expert information, it’s part of your job to make the connection between where your audience is at, and where you’re at. In order to do this, you need to know where you’re at–hence question number one–but you also need to take seriously what that person or group thinks about the topic at hand: vaccines.
Even for just a moment, try to find a part of their understanding that makes sense to you. The faster you can see the sense behind what your audience is thanking, the faster you can get on with communication that’s going to connect to them. So keep in mind that whatever your audience says is related to assumptions or beliefs that they hold. And that these assumptions or beliefs make sense to them.
Now, I focused in this short episode on interpersonal conversations, a bit of mass communication, but there are systemic factors at play too, and serious work to be done here. If you’d like help put this in your organization, contact me. Visit HealthCommunicationPartners.com, click on contact. Find me on Twitter. Find me on LinkedIn. This has been 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.