Acknowledgement is powerful.
We did a “soft launch” of our huge Covid-19 vaccination site. Our “customers” includes some police officers. As the driver of a two-person car was getting the shot, I asked the other officer (using gestures) if she also wanted to get one. She shook her head no, then rolled down the window, gave a little bit of an embarrassed laugh and said she was afraid of it. I asked if she was afraid of the vaccine or just didn’t like getting shots. The vaccine, she said.
At this point, I could have begun telling her all of the reasons that these new vaccines are safe, but I didn’t, because I know that logic is the wrong path to help people with fear or anxiety.
Instead, I said, “We were all a little scared of it. And Covid is scary, too.” That’s acknowledgement. I told her that the more I learned about it, the more comfortable I got about receiving the vaccine. (I have had both shots and reached full immunity yesterday!).
“I was just reading about it,” she said, pointing to the mobile computer in the patrol car.
“Good!” I replied. “That’s the best thing to do.” I turned and stepped away. But moments later, my partner said, “She wants it.” Just that fast, she changed her mind.
I can’t prove this, but I know that if I had tried to convince her to get it, rather than acknowledging her fears, she would not have decided to go ahead with it. Acknowledgement has that power, partly because it says “You aren’t crazy,” but mostly because it says, “Me, too.” The part of our brain that drives anxiety and worry, which I like to call the “stress autopilot,” is reassured by hearing that it’s reactions are normal and shared.
Honestly, despite seeing the power of acknowledgement and “Me, too” many times doing crisis intervention and peer support, I was still surprised when she changed her mind so quickly. The power of acknowledgement, along with its partner, normalization, still often astonishes me. But I have learned to trust it enough to be able to (usually) easily ignore the part of me that wants to “fix the problem” with explanations and pressure. Those will backfire almost every time.