The Vaccine Blog

Why having difficult discussions is hard

Nobody likes difficult discussions


They`re uncomfortable, uncertain and we never know how they will turn out


People will go to any length to avoid them; avoiding, blaming and any number of tactics. We`re all guilty of this at times, and it's understandable. We can anticipate others' reactions. We can turn different scenarios of what may happen around in our heads all day and night. We can discuss it with other people. What we cannot do , however, is predict or control the other person's reaction (or other people`s reaction)  and the actions they take after the conversation that might affect us. Now of course any discussion has the potential to change relationship dynamics. However, certain discussions of certain types and at certain times really can be turning points in any friendship/ relationship. This can apply to discussions relating to vaccines. That said, any difficult conversation really follows the same or similar principles. 


This is all based on something I've talked about before - lack of certainty and fear of the unknown. Specifically, they`re both rooted in the fear of being rejected. That's not an irrational fear after all - we evolved in tribes and being an outcast meant you were highly vulnerable to predators. Social bonds secured resources ie. food, water  - and therefore made survival more likely. In fact, in our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee,  a 2016 paper by Sam G.B Roberts and Anna I. Roberts, it was found that a key role of the evolution of vocalisations and gestures in groups of chimpanzees is to maintain social cohesion as groups sizes increase and become more complex. 


The authors hypothesised that”  a key function of both gestures and vocalisations in hominin evolution may have been social bonding and maintaining social cohesion in large social groups.”Further, according to an article published on on June 16th, 2022, a study of over 7,000 brain scans showed that brain regions involved in social interactions were also associated with regions supporting cognition, the default mode network (that is, the network active when we are unfocused on the external world.), networks involved in memory, emotion, motivation and a variety of other important regions. The point is - we evolved in groups. We`re wired for social connections. The same article also described another study that found that social isolation changes brain structure, and learning and even carries a risk of dementia in older adults. The point is - we're literally wired for social connections. . 


Some say that principle should not apply today - but I'd argue that we are still safer in groups, logically speaking. It is safer to travel in groups than alone, two - income households can afford more resources than one (depending on what other financial commitments they have); groups of people can distribute work amongst themselves - using less time, resources and energy on an individual level. There are countless examples. 


It surely makes sense, then, that any situation placing us at risk of losing social connections can be very difficult  - and difficult conversations are most certainly one of them. We also can`t control whether we will lose social connections after having difficult conversations; or if the dynamics of the relationship will change at all. I'd argue that that in itself is the most difficult aspect of these types of discussion. 


So now we know why - the next question is how we should address these discussions? They're eventually going to come up for everyone regardless of who you are. The first thing is to accept the uncertainty. As difficult as it is; even if we do lose social connections or the relationship changes we can form new social bonds. The world is massively interconnected today with travel,apps,  social media and other communication facilities on the Internet. It's not guaranteed of course, but finding a community of people we resonate well with has never been easier. Somewhat counterintuitively - uncertainty is among the only certainty in life. Often, we just have to embrace the uncertainty because it's inevitable in every aspect of life; throughout life. And acceptance is generally the best way through difficult situations.


The next thing I`ll say is that as difficult as it is, try to approach the situation as objectively as possible. Now, how do you do that when you're overwhelmed with emotion? One technique I like to use is to imagine that I`m advising someone else; possibly a close friend about the same situation. That removes the personal, emotional element of it ( to some degree) and allows us to see the situation in a way that might allow us to clearly see what is most important moving forward. 



Difficult discussions are  complicated. It's not necessarily that the content of the discussion  is difficult. It's more that the anxiety we might experience can make us factor in many variables and make us turn over many possibilities in our head. This is rooted in our evolutionary past, and it can`t be eradicated completely. However, there are ways to think about the situation that help us navigate the discussion. This helps us practise the vital skill of resilience that ultimately helps us navigate many challenges in life. Thanks for reading. 



  1. Social Brain Hypothesis: Vocal and Gesture Networks of Wild Chimpanzees -
  2. Socially isolated people have differently wired brains and poorer cognition – new researc