June 18, 2024


Savvy business masters

Commentary: How to tell your older, stubborn relative to adopt social distancing

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island: See if this sounds familiar. You have an older relative whom you believe to be at a serious health risk if they catch the coronavirus. You call, try to persuade them to take social distancing seriously.

But your arguments fail to resonate. You both get angry and hang up, locked in a stalemate.

The bad news is that these conversations are as important to get right as they are frustrating. The good news is that you – perhaps without realising it – have stepped into a field that has already generated a great deal of useful wisdom.

In my work at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a research and education centre aimed at advancing the science and practice of humanitarian response, I researched emergency relief responders who – every day, all across world – seek to influence the behavior of governments, rebel groups and people affected by emergencies in order to mitigate suffering from large-scale humanitarian crises.

Everyone can play a role in mitigating the disaster caused by this coronavirus outbreak. Success during this pandemic hinges on the ability to persuade our social and family circles to take social distancing seriously to slow the virus’s spread and avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.

READ: Commentary: No room for BS in the time of coronavirus

READ: Commentary: Why Singapore is preparing to tap the brakes to slow COVID-19 spread

In other words, we are all humanitarian negotiators now.

Before you pick up the phone to call that elderly or immune-compromised loved one, make sure you first take these three steps, as any skilled humanitarian negotiator would:


Research shows four elements – substance, emotions, relationships and values – are important aspects of negotiation. If you have not thought through each of these, then you have not adequately prepared.

Master the substance. Make sure you understand the logic of “flattening the curve,” can explain why the coronavirus is worse than the flu, and know the latest hospitalization and death rate statistics, especially for your counterpart’s age bracket.

People wear face masks near a bus stop on a street following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease

People wear face masks near a bus stop on a street following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China on Mar 30, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

But don’t stop there, thinking that rational arguments alone should win the day. Think through how you will use emotions in the discussion.

If the conversation gets tough, plan how you will regulate your frustration. Be prepared to step away, let yourself cool off – and call back later.

But also think about the emotional tone of the conversation so that you can approach the discussion in a way that is true to yourself while also maximising possible impact.

Do you imagine you will offer an angry rebuke? A tearful plea? A calm discussion rooted in your concern?

READ: Commentary: Partying and picnicking with friends? Your complacency this COVID-19 outbreak is misplaced

In the words of negotiation scholars Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro: “Preparation involves facing your own emotions and getting ready to deal with the emotions of those with whom you will be working.”

This conversation is not just about facts and figures. It is about your relationship with your loved one.

Additionally, what values does your counterpart hold dear? Maybe it’s their religion’s teachings. Maybe it’s making sure they’ll still be alive to see their granddaughter’s high school graduation in five years. Whatever it is, consider how you can frame the discussion in these terms.


Perhaps you are not the best person to persuade the listener. You might need to think a step ahead, like a chess player, and enlist someone else more trusted.

Within your family, perhaps your sister is better placed to convince your mother. But your sister is not yet taking social distancing seriously.

READ: Commentary: Is loss of smell or taste an early sign of the COVID-19?

Family playing board game

(Photo: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute)

Maybe you are close to your sister’s husband. You might need to first persuade your sister’s husband, in order to persuade your sister, in order to persuade your mother.

Welcome to actor mapping and stakeholder analysis, a crucial tool for humanitarian negotiators. Don’t just call your mother and hope for the best. Use your social network so that the “take social distancing seriously” message comes from others as well.


In this high-stakes negotiation, it is important to know yourself as a negotiator.

Are you prone to avoiding conflict? Being aggressive? Accommodating? Collaborating? Seeking compromise?

READ: Commentary: Has Myanmar been in denial over COVID-19 outbreak all this while?

READ: Commentary: The eye-watering costs of postponing the Tokyo Olympics

Do a self-assessment, like the one on this app developed by Michael Wheeler of Harvard Business School. Understanding your natural tendencies can help you play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses.

And finally, examine your own journey toward taking social distancing seriously. There was a time, months ago, when you probably had never heard of the coronavirus.

There was a time after that when you knew about the outbreak but did not think social distancing was relevant to you.

People wearing face masks walk, in Wuhan

People wearing face masks walk, in Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicenter of China’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on Mar 29, 2020.  (Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song)

What rational arguments, social factors, emotional elements and values shaped your path toward taking social distancing seriously? Better understanding this can help you figure out how best to encourage others to move ahead on their own path.

Not everyone can be persuaded. However, someone might reach the conclusion to take social distancing seriously through a thought process that is very different than yours.

Your job as a negotiator is to imagine what your counterpart’s journey to that important point might look like – and then figure out what role you might play in helping them get there.

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Rob Grace is Graduate Research Fellow at the Harvard Programme on Negotiation; USIP-Minerva Peace Scholar, US Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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