Help! Some of my friends/family are not up to date on their vaccines. How do I start the conversation?


A: Bottom line – start small (with questions) and be empathic. Don’t focus on why they’re “wrong.”

While a majority of Americans (about 79%) have received at least one dose of the primary COVID-19 vaccine series, many have not stayed up to date on boosters (or finished their primary series). Some are still waiting for more data, others find getting frequent shots a hassle (what’s with all these boosters, already?). Seasonal flu shot rates are also low (usually not more than about 50%), and we have even seen some recent decreases in rates of routine childhood immunizations, such as the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR).

Given these trends, it is quite possible that you know someone (or many people) who is not up to date on their vaccines. You may feel powerless or upset about this, and you may want to intervene, but perhaps you’re not sure how. You know that discussions about vaccines can often become tense. So how do you broach the topic?

One thing to keep in mind is that most people who are not up to date on their vaccines are not hard-core “anti-vaxxers.” There is a broad spectrum of vaccine confidence and hesitancy, from absolutely sure you want a vaccine to absolutely certain you don’t. Most people who aren’t vaccinated are somewhere in the middle – they’re uncertain. So don’t go into the conversation with your fighting gear on. Consider that the person you’re speaking to is in most instances not sure about the vaccine in question.

Next, it’s best to start the conversation with some questions, rather than approaching with a litany of facts. Try to get a sense of whether the person has ever considered getting the vaccine, what he or she might be waiting for exactly, and if there’s anything in particular that would make them decide one way or the other. You should also understand where this person gets their information and what information sources they tend to trust. This will be important later, when you ideally guide them to some resources that may help answer their questions. If the person is generally distrustful of the government, then giving them CDC resources might be a mistake. On the other hand, they might respond well to more community-based sources, like Those Nerdy Girls (to use just one awesome example 😉).

Here are some questions you might ask:

❇️ How did you decide that you didn’t want to get this vaccine?

❇️ What information sources do you generally use and trust to make health decisions?

❇️ Has there ever been a health decision in the past that you’ve changed your mind about? What made the difference?

❇️ Are you waiting for something to help you make this decision? What event would make a difference for you?

❇️ Is there anything else that might make you decide to get vaccinated now?

As you get the answers, show empathy. Here are some empathetic phrases you might use:

❇️ This is a difficult decision for anyone, and I think you are right to think about it carefully.

❇️ It can be hard when new vaccines pop up, and it’s always good to fully understand risks and benefits.

❇️ I also always do a lot of research about new vaccines to see if they are right for me and my family.

Feel free to embellish with stories. Storytelling is a great tool, and the more you can make the conversation personal, even talking about situations in which you yourself may have felt hesitant, the more success you are likely to have.

Resist the reflex to correct facts with long lectures, and be careful about using too many statistics that might not be meaningful to the person. Your best bet is to listen first, correct any misinformation with short, accessible statements, and then focus on getting a better understanding of what’s motivating the person’s thoughts and behaviors. Remember that your goal is to help them get in touch with the best course of action for their goals of protecting their health and the health of their loved ones.

After the conversation, don’t be shy about following up! Expect that it might take a few conversations to influence someone’s decisions, and don’t get frustrated if you haven’t moved them to taking a definitive step after just one encounter.

When in doubt, refer them to Those Nerdy Girls! We have posts on almost every vaccine topic from many different angles. We’re here to be a resource for you and those close to you!

We wish you productive conversations and are here to help. In the meantime, stay safe and stay well!

Those Nerdy Girls

Further Resources:

Previous Post from Those Nerdy Girls on helping to overcome vaccine hesitancy

WHO article on how to talk to people about vaccines

NEJM review on vaccine hesitancy

The Vaccine Confidence Project

Link to Original FB Post