Skip to main content
How to Be Assertive About Your COVID Concerns This Holiday Season

You are listening to Health Library:

How to Be Assertive About Your COVID Concerns This Holiday Season

Nov 20, 2020

As the holidays approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people find themselves trying to navigate how to celebrate with family safely—if they feel safe to meet up at all. Some family members may have different ideas about what it means to be safe during these times. Dr. Benjamin Chan shares his strategy of how to be assertive about your health concerns with your family during the holidays.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: This Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's going to be very different than Thanksgivings and Christmases in the past. It used to be you would get together with family and friends, and now health officials are saying that perhaps you should reconsider that because of the spread of COVID-19, that you should maintain that family bubble.

However, even within families there are a lot of different opinions on how dangerous the virus is and what kind of safety precautions could be taken. So having those conversations with family members about whether or not to come to Thanksgiving or get the whole family together could be very, very challenging.

Dr. Benjamin Chan is a psychiatrist at University of Utah Health and in communication, communicating your thoughts and feelings is referred to as assertive communication, and it can be a very challenging thing to do. And I wanted to find out how somebody could be an assertive communicator, not aggressive, but an assertive communicator in talking about plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. So is that what you call it? Is that what you call it, is assertive communication in your field?

Dr. Chan: Yes, Scot. And again, we're all in the middle of a pandemic. This is historic, unprecedented, and incredibly challenging. And in years past, Thanksgiving dinner would be a time that we get together, see and talk to long-lost cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, maybe some neighbors, family friends. That is not safe this year.

And there's a lot of disagreement in the community about how to get together for Thanksgiving. A lot of people have different thoughts and feelings about COVID, and what social distancing is, and what masks are. And this time more than any other is the time for you to be assertive because you have to protect your own health. You have to protect your family and your loved ones. And COVID is silently transmitted. This is not the podcast that goes into it, but you can listen to many others. But there's a lot of different research and data out there that shows how pernicious and silent COVID can spread.

So assertiveness means behaving and communicating in a manner that equally values your rights and opinions on par with other people's rights and opinions. And the opposite of assertiveness is passiveness. And passiveness is when you put someone else's rights and opinions above your own. So now is the time to be assertive.

Interviewer: Have those assertive conversations beforehand. What does that look like? Because I mean, some people, myself included, we don't like conflict, right? So it's really difficult for us to know . . . I'm going to be talking to somebody in my family who thinks that COVID maybe isn't a big deal, that we should still get together, and it's going to be tough for me to express, "No, I disagree." How do you do that in an assertive way?

Dr. Chan: You do that in an assertive way by first recognizing that the other person has a different opinion and feeling than yourself. And then you segue into statements that start with, "I feel." So, "I feel scared for my own health because when I hear that you're going to host a Thanksgiving get-together and not everyone there is going to be wearing a mask or socially distancing, I feel scared that I might get COVID." And you frame things where you recognize the other person's belief or values, and then you maintain your own beliefs and values.

And people want to be heard, they want to be listened to. So my experience has been if you immediately start talking about what you believe and do not give the other person the recognition for what they believe, that's where conflict really starts escalating because the two parties don't feel like they're being listened to or heard. But if you can restate perhaps in their own words or maybe a summation of what you understand what their belief is and then give your belief, that gives an opportunity for that person to feel that you actually listened to them, an acknowledgement, and then you can present your belief.

Interviewer: I tell you what, I can see the spiraling for me pretty quickly, because I think people that do believe that COVID is a serious threat to the health, when they hear somebody that does not necessarily have that same belief, we just want to go, "Well, I understand you don't think this is a big of a threat impact as I do." Would that be the restating? Is that fair enough? Is that all I need to say? I mean, it's so hard not to do that judgmentally.

Dr. Chan: I agree, Scot. And it's credibly difficult. It might take practice. And I think when you, like, your example you just gave is a very quick response and people's responses tend to be much longer. So if you say, you know, "When I hear you, it sounds like you do not feel that the COVID pandemic is as serious as some of the public health officials have said or as serious as some of the hospital officials have said. I do believe those individuals, and this is why I believe them." I agree, it could start spiraling, but to me the key is to reframe it through core values. Just go back to values.

So people want to feel safe. They want to feel heard. They want to feel that they're being listened to. So if the core value is health, you can talk about like, "What is your value about the health," and they'll talk about the memories and the mental health of getting together for Thanksgiving. And you can use that as a springboard of, "Okay, this is my conceptualization of health. I'm worried about COVID. I'm worried about the fevers and the respiratory problems and everything else associated with COVID." If you have a discussion about values, the vast majority of people have core similar values, and then you can just explore those basic values together.

It's hard, Scot. It's incredibly difficult because people are drawing upon information from a wide variety of sources. Some of these sources might not have the same beliefs that you believe or might have different versions of facts. But you need to be assertive during this moment because if not, you will open yourself up to potentially being exposed to COVID and then a lot of hurt feelings will stem from that.

Interviewer: You know, being assertive doesn't necessarily mean the other person is going to react in a positive way. And if they don't, I guess you just have to go away with, you know, "I tried my best, but I have to make this decision for myself, or for grandma, or for grandpa, or for whoever." How do you deal with that? So again, I don't like conflict. I don't like it when somebody, you know, doesn't like me anymore. How do you deal with that? Is there a closing phrase you would use? Like, "I'm sorry we couldn't come together on this, but I still love you and care about you very much."

Dr. Chan: Yeah. Again, Scot, you did a great job. I think it's like you want to normalize this as best as you can during a pandemic. So this is an important holiday coming up. It's very important to a lot of people, but it's simply one day out of the year. And we have talked about previously, we're in a marathon. This is not a sprint. There's a lot of things happening in the country as we're trying to address this. So in my attempt to normalize, it's like, if everyone got together for Thanksgiving there's going to be disagreements. We've always had disagreements over the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes it's about the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions football teams. Sometimes it's about someone's political beliefs. Sometimes it's about someone not doing well at school or their job. It's normal to have conflict during Thanksgiving time.

This is a time when it might be normal to have a disagreement if we should really get together, or if we get together, it needs to be socially distant and safe with masks, or maybe we don't get together this year, or maybe we do a Zoom Thanksgiving and a virtual Thanksgiving. And that's okay because the most important thing is safety and health. And we want to stay together as a family in the coming months, and there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We all feel that. We all believe that. We want that to happen. That's still very much many months away.

So I try to end all these difficult conversations kind of like you gave with positivity. Let's say something nice. Let's say something that we can all agree on. I always like in these tough discussions kind of like a U shape. You start off high, you kind of go low, you go really deep, you kind of talk about feelings, emotions, values, and then you rise back up. You never want to end these discussions at the bottom of the pit. You want to rise to the top and say some nice things to each other, and agree to, you know, let's talk about something that's not as emotionally taxing, like the Dallas Cowboys or the Detroit Lions. Let's talk about something that we can agree on because these are difficult conversations. It's really hard to be assertive, but now more than ever it's really required.