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Talking to Your Family About Health Reform: A How To Guide

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With Thanksgiving just done, many of us are fresh from the kinds of family gatherings that remind us of the need to put the "fun" back in "dysfunctional." In fact, many of you may be dreading the rest of the holiday season. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid conversations about the divisive issues of the day--and perhaps no issue is more prominent in the minds of most Americans than health reform. To assist you in talking to your family and friends about health reform my colleague Erica Nelson and I have put together a handy "how-to" guide for you.

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You know and I know that health reform is about all of us--not just the "lazy" and "irresponsible" uninsured. Now, as we head home for the holidays and the Senate debates their bill, we're reminded that we don't always see eye-to-eye with our relatives. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do our best to educate them. After all, no one wants to be the family with the grandparents living in the garage or the basement because they got sick and went bankrupt to pay for it. Now is the time to talk to your family about why health reform matters to them. Here's your guide on how to have "the talk" without ruining dinner. Consider it our Christmahanukwanzaakah gift to you.

Tip 1: LISTEN- You have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.

  • You might be more knowledgeable about health reform than most people, but the key is to target your audience. Try to determine your family member's level of knowledge and understanding and always acknowledge--rather than immediately discount--their fears.
  • Put your cell phone down, turn off the television, and pay attention to the conversation. The goal is to really listen. Don't just use your ears, use your whole body. Lean towards them. Look them in the eye. Above all, let them finish speaking before you say anything, and even then remember to take turns.
  • To show that you're actively listening to them, ask clarifying questions: "What I think you're saying is ____________. Am I right?"

Tip 2: Create an open dialogue.

  • Break the ice before broaching the topic of health reform. Use a joke. Catch up on what you've both been doing since you last saw each other. Whatever.
  • Treat them as an expert of their own opinion. Ask them to share their views--because you're curious about what they believe--and invite them to speak freely.
  • Don't be afraid to talk about your own concerns with the changes that could occur.

Tip 3: Explore the facts.

  • Be prepared with understandable facts, but remember to target your argument to the level of the person to whom you are speaking. "Adverse selection" may not mean much to your Aunt Edna.
  • Read through some of the "Wright on Health" posts and put together some talking points that you can use just in case that whole civil discourse thing doesn't happen or LISTENING isn't working.

Tip 4: Acknowledge the complexity of the topic.

  • Try not to get defensive if you don't like what they're saying while you are listening. Pretend you're running for President and this is a televised debate. You don't want the camera to catch you interrupting or rolling your eyes at something that was said. Just wait your turn to speak, leave emotion out of it, and appeal to the facts.
  • Don't be afraid to say, "I'm not sure about that -- but I'll find out." Bluffing might work occasionally in poker, but it almost always backfires in debate.

Tip 5: Follow-up.

  • If you say, "I'll find out" - FIND OUT! And get back to them. Remember, the entire point of this risky undertaking called "talking with your family about health reform" is about educating people. If you don't know something, it's your duty to find out and subsequently share that newfound information.
  • Share your stories with us here on the blog. After all, we can learn from both your successes and your failures. Plus, we'll all benefit from a good laugh.

With these tips, we're confident that you can survive the holidays--and we hold fast to the hope that some of you will even manage to convince one or more of your family members of the need for health reform. Just remember: Get to them before the tryptophan kicks in.

Subscribe to Wright on Health to see what else I have to say during the week. You can also contact me here.

Erica is a masters student in health policy at the University of North Carolina. She lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, their daughter, and a little dog named Blue. She can be reached for further comment (or if you want to hire her) at erica@unc.edu