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How to Talk to a COVID Denier

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Key Takeaways

  • Around 13 percent of Americans think that the coronavirus probably or definitely isn’t real, according to a global survey from YouGov.
  • When talking to a COVID denier, focus on understanding and engaging, not convincing them, experts say.
  • Letting a COVID denier know you care about them can go a long way toward preserving the relationship, even if you can’t find common ground on the pandemic.

Two different realities seem to have emerged during the pandemic. In one world, you have people trying to wrap their minds around growing numbers of COVID-19 deaths (272,525 in the U.S. as of Dec. 3). Masks have become a must in public, and many people have been avoiding non-essential activities.

But in what seems to be a parallel universe live people who doubt that COVID-19 exists at all. Some believe that it is a myth created by some powerful forces or non-existent government agency, while others understand that it exists, but think its effects have been greatly exaggerated. They see masks as a form of oppression, a symbol of weakness, and try to live their lives as they always have. 

These two worlds are much closer than they appear, though. Some 13% of Americans believe the coronavirus isn’t real, according to a global survey from YouGov. Chances are you know someone who falls into this camp—a colleague, a friend, a relative—who isn’t taking this situation seriously. How can you find common ground?

It’s not easy, but these expert-approved tips might boost your chances of having a civil conversation and a deeper understanding of one another. Here’s how to talk to a COVID denier. 

Understanding COVID-19 Skepticism

When you see the staggering statistics related to COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine that someone could deny the existence of such a devastating disease. However, trying to understand the roots of a person’s skepticism can facilitate a productive conversation about the pandemic.

Much of the doubt about COVID-19, and science in general, comes from a politicization of the issue, says Emma Frances Bloomfield, PhD, assistant professor of communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of “Communications Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics.”

Emma Frances Bloomfield, PhD

People think that their party loyalty should determine whether they wear masks or not. We’re substituting scientific expertise with politics.

— Emma Frances Bloomfield, PhD

“That can lead to skepticism when leaders are not united in terms of their messages,” she says. “People think that their party loyalty should determine whether they wear masks or not. We’re substituting scientific expertise with politics.” 

People’s beliefs about COVID-19 have come to be part of their group identities, adds Mark Somerville, LCSW, director of mental health at Hackensack Meridian Palisades Medical Center, making it even harder for someone with an opposing viewpoint to be heard.

“When people offer information that goes against the belief of your group, it is seen as an attack. The response is to attack back and the facts become completely negated,” he explains. 

COVID-19 skepticism is also exacerbated by an influx of misleading information on social media. A lack of media literacy makes it difficult for people to discern the truth.

“More and more people are getting what they perceive to be factual information from social media, and they use that as a basis for making up their mind about an issue,” says Somerville. “People tend to take their first source of information as conclusive and it can no longer be challenged.”

In other worse, COVID deniers aren’t necessarily actively refuting “the facts.” Their beliefs are the result of the politicization of science, groupthink, and an influx of misleading information and conspiracy theories online. Understanding the roots of skepticism puts you on firmer footing to engage a loved one about this issue in an effective way.

Let Them Know You Care

Experts say the best way to start a conversation with a COVID-19 denier is by letting them know you care.

“Leverage that interpersonal relationship and communicate that you value the other person,” says Bloomfield. “Talking about people and values you have in common can bring people to the table in a way that’s not patronizing.” 

For example, you can reference an aging relative you both have in common and your mutual interest in keeping that person safe and healthy. You can also empathize with the pain, discomfort, and uncertainty they have experienced as a result of statewide lockdowns and the economic ramifications of the pandemic. 

Remember: A person’s skepticism may stem from identifying with a particular group. If they know there are other supportive, caring people to lean on outside of that group, they may be more willing to consider other points of view, and less afraid of ending up alone if they change their mind, says Somerville.

Focus on Connecting, Not Convincing

Want to get someone to change their views on COVID-19? Don’t try to convince them, says Bloomfield.

“If you go into the conversation thinking that you’re the expert and you’re going to educate them on something, that attitude will often lead to people being defensive and shutting down,” she explains. 

Instead, focus on engaging with them on a deeper level and trying to understand how they arrived at their views. That can build a sense of empathy and make the person more inclined to really listen to what you’re saying.

“You have to go after some level of connectedness that you’re in the same boat,” says Somerville.

Mark Somerville, LCSW

At some point, you can decide that you value the relationship more than you value trying to convince someone of something that’s important.

— Mark Somerville, LCSW

Asking a lot of questions can help you engage with them in a way that shows respect and genuine curiosity. You could ask about where they’re getting their information and what resources they’re using to make their decisions. 

“Try not to assume you know what they’re doing and why,” Bloomfield adds. “Those information-seeking questions open the door for you to share that you heard something different.”

Acknowledge Their Points

Throughout the conversation, the person with whom you’re speaking may bring up accurate points to support their side of the argument. It’s critical to acknowledge moments of truth.

Somerville points out that public health experts delivered inconsistent messaging about wearing masks early on in the pandemic, which led to confusion and skepticism. This point may come up when speaking with a COVID denier.

“When a person says, ‘Listen, at one point they told us not to wear masks and now they want us to,’ they’re right,” he says. “Acknowledge that you had a trusted source that gave you the wrong information.”

This type of response helps you relate to the other person and create an opportunity for them to receive new information. You can say that you know the information has been confusing, but now that we’re nine months into the pandemic, scientists have a much better understanding of how we can stop the spread of the coronavirus by wearing masks.

This same communications tactic can be applied to other things that might come up when talking to a COVID denier, such as the potential severity of the disease.

Personalize Statistics

From the latest infection rates in your community to the total COVID-19 cases across the country, statistics are bound to come up when talking about the pandemic. Finding ways to use these numbers strategically can go a long way toward having an engaging conversation with a COVID denier.

“Statistics are important, they’re part of the story of COVID, but when you use them, you want to put them in context,” says Bloomfield.

It’s difficult for many people to conceive of a loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Reframing the number with something a person can relate to, such as how many towns 260,000-plus people would fill, can make the information more accessible, says Bloomfield.

You can continue to humanize the effects of the pandemic by telling personal stories that relate to the numbers. There are still many people who don’t know someone who’s been sickened by COVID-19, so the more you can put a face to the situation, the more likely it is that they will understand where you’re coming from.

“Remind them that each of those numbers is person who had a family, who had hopes and dreams, and who is now gone,” says Bloomfield. “Telling one or two of those stories can illustrate what those big numbers mean and concretize them for people.”

Preserving Relationships Amid Differences

No matter how many communication tactics you try, there’s a chance that talking to a COVID denier won’t get you the results you’re hoping for.

“There’s no magic sequence of words or right or wrong way to do things, and a lot of it will depend on the person, the conversation, and the context,” notes Bloomfield. “Sometimes it won’t work.” 

Just because you didn’t immediately change a person’s mind doesn’t mean you failed, though. Some of your ideas may resonate with the person in the coming days or weeks, especially if you were able to deepen your connection through the conversation.

The good news is that there are ways of preserving meaningful relationships despite having opposite views on an important issue. You may need to agree to table the discussion or make certain topics off limits to help preserve the peace and your mental health.

“At some point, you can decide that you value the relationship more than you value trying to convince someone of something that’s important,” says Somerville. “Telling someone you care about them is a very different statement than saying they have to agree with you, and hopefully they feel the same way in return.” 

What This Means For You

Inconsistent messaging from health authorities, the spread of misinformation on social media, and the politicization of science have fueled skepticism about COVID-19. It has put many people in the situation of having tough conversations with COVID deniers, especially as people reconnect during the holiday season.

Experts recommend focusing on building a connection, rather than trying to convince someone of your beliefs.

Finding ways to help the person feel understood can create a window of opportunity for them to receive fact-based information. Approaching the conversation with respect and empathy makes it more likely that you can preserve meaningful relationships with others, even if you ultimately still disagree on an important issue.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC COVID Data Tracker. Updated December 2, 2020.

  2. YouGov Cambridge Globalism 2020. YouGov.com. Published November 2020.