Date April 30, 2020
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Conversations on COVID: How to persuade loved ones to stay at home

Rob Grace, a Ph.D. student at Brown, drew from his research on humanitarian negotiation to offer advice on how to convince skeptical friends and family to protect themselves from COVID-19 via social distancing.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the early 2000s, as the U.S. went to war in Iraq, Rob Grace wrote a play about a group of friends in colonial America who were torn apart by their divergent views on the Revolutionary War. It was one of many times the erstwhile playwright used theater to explore timeless themes of citizens’ ethical dilemmas in times of conflict.

Rob GraceGrace, now in his fifth year of doctoral studies, believes that everyone can learn a thing or two from humanitarian negotiators — workers who persuade political and military leaders to let them enter areas of conflict to provide care for refugees, families in poverty and other vulnerable groups — especially now, as Americans are at odds over how, and even whether, to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently, Grace answered questions about the current state of humanitarian work in the era of COVID-19 and shared tips on how to persuade loved ones to stay home and protect themselves from the virus.

Q: You study humanitarian access negotiations — what does that mean?

Essentially, I am looking at what happens when international humanitarian organizations seek to come into certain areas to provide help, primarily during armed conflicts. When I speak about humanitarian organizations, I’m talking about Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, the World Food Programme — organizations that provide important things like food and medical support. In order to get to the vulnerable people they need to get to, these organizations need to negotiate for access with governments or armed groups. They often need to engage with political actors, and as a result there’s a risk that what they’re doing could become politicized. That’s why negotiations are more challenging in highly politicized contexts, such as in Syria in the midst of a civil war, and more successful in less politicized contexts, such as in Haiti in the wake of an earthquake.

Q: What challenges are humanitarian workers facing as they attempt to provide aid during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The situation is dire. Humanitarians seek to assist those who are most vulnerable in the world, many of whom already lack access to adequate health and social services. COVID-19 increases these vulnerabilities even further. To illustrate the gravity of the situation, the head of the World Food Programme recently warned that the result could be famines “of biblical proportions.” Greater vulnerabilities also mean a greater gap between needs and available funding.

Still, it is possible that the drastic and widespread nature of the pandemic could offer an opportunity to push more forcefully for a humanitarian agenda. The United Nations secretary general has called for a global humanitarian ceasefire, for example. Pakistan has eased restrictions on aid organizations operating in the country.

Overall, though, it seems that the pandemic will exacerbate even further the already vexing challenges — intense conditions challenging to mental health and physical security, access difficulties, funding shortfalls — that humanitarians already face.

Q: What does humanitarian negotiation look like in practice?

Humanitarian negotiation has different dimensions. It is about rational arguments and interests, but these are not the only aspects of it. It is also social, emotional and cultural. The skilled negotiator will play to all of these different angles. Additionally, negotiation as a process does not have to be about threats, deceit or getting your way at all costs. The mode of negotiation discussed at the Harvard Program on Negotiation — where I am a fellow this year — is “integrative,” meaning the objective is to satisfy the interests of all sides in the negotiation. The broad lesson is: Don’t just think about yourself and what you want to accomplish. Think about where your counterpart stands and what they want and need. You will need to understand that and work with that in order to accomplish your own aims.

Q: What got you thinking about the ways in which the current crisis relates to your area of study?

The central focus of my research is the negotiations that humanitarian workers undertake in large-scale emergencies: wars, natural disasters, technological disasters, infectious disease outbreaks. These negotiations can have life or death implications. If, for example, humanitarian workers can’t persuade armed guards at a checkpoint to allow them through, people in need of emergency relief could die as a result.

During COVID-19, we have all found ourselves trying to influence people’s behavior in order to save lives. I began to see and hear about stories of people struggling in their conversations with loved ones about taking social distancing seriously. It occurred to me that, in the COVID-19 era, we have all essentially become humanitarian negotiators. Hence, we might benefit from thinking about these interactions in a more strategic manner, the way a skilled negotiator would.

Q: How can humanitarian negotiation tactics help everyday people who are trying to persuade loved ones to stay home?

The risk is that, when approaching these conversations, people will make some arguments that seem very rational to them, get angry when the other person doesn’t seem persuaded — and then it ends like that. My research on humanitarian negotiation suggests that it’s best if you don’t think of it solely as a rational argument. Your perspective is informed by your social environment, your emotions and your culture. The other person’s perspective is, too.

Put some thought into the rational arguments that you want to make but also the emotional arguments you want to put forward. Do you want to come in angry and frustrated to show how much you care? Or do you want to set a more gentle, vulnerable tone? Perhaps a teary-eyed appeal? I’m not recommending cynical emotional manipulation. Take stock of your own emotions. What’s truly in your heart? How can you draw from that, communicate it to your loved one to show them why this is so important to you?

Look at it as a longer process, not just a single conversation. Perhaps this process will entail multiple conversations over multiple days. Perhaps you can bring other friends or family members into the process. Think strategically about what you’re trying to accomplish and consider how you can craft a plan to achieve your objective.

Q: How else can people take a page out of humanitarian workers' books?

In my doctoral work at Brown, I am seeking to untangle what can be accomplished through negotiation and what cannot. A key question is: What are the limits of negotiation, and what can and should people do within those constraints? We face this situation now. We might not be able to persuade our federal government to behave the way we would like them to behave. But we can take steps in our personal lives to mitigate the adverse consequences.

Humanitarian action begins with a needs assessment, an evaluation of who is most vulnerable and what they need. We can do the same in our personal lives. We can check in on neighbors to see who needs help buying groceries. Those who have means can continue to pay their housekeepers, for example. Just as professional humanitarians do, we can seek to help in the ways that we can in an imperfect world.