I have an aged neighbour – let’s call her Wendy – who lives alone, is fiercely independent and loves to garden. She is a smart and educated woman, deeply rational and with a curious mind. She’s amazing. But lately she’s been driving my family and I mad with her evasive reluctance to get vaccinated against COVID. When not gardening, Wendy watches the news channel obsessively so she knows which age cohort is most at risk of serious illness and death in this terrible pandemic.

My wife and I have been shaking our heads at each other in exasperation. “Why isn’t Wendy getting a jab? What is she thinking?” Sometimes even “How can she be so crazy?”

In other words we have been firmly mounted on our high horses, confident in our righteous indignation. Deeply embedded in our view that everyone should get vaccinated and that anyone who doesn’t is, let’s be honest, one card short of the full deck. It’s kind of nice to be so right.

And then I bumped into Wendy again the other day as she pulled great weeds, hoisted troublesome rocks and raked like a Dervish. I quickly mounted my horse again and pointedly asked “are you vaccinated yet Wendy?” As always she hummed and haahed, mumbled a few words and tried to change the subject.

I defaulted to lecture mode again, but this time something interrupted that automatic response. I stopped for a second and then asked “what is worrying you about the vaccines Wendy?” Strange that I hadn’t asked that before. Turns out that Wendy, like many an 87 year old, is on a daily regime of pills by the tub full. She’s been very worried that any new medication or drug, such as a vaccine, will adversely react with all the other drugs she’s on and something terrible will happen to her. Fundamentally she is scared of collapsing at home alone.

My bubble of righteous virtue burst and I landed with a guilty thump. I had never thought of that. Wendy’s reluctance suddenly made a lot of sense. I got it.

Turns out that putting aside my ‘position’ and being curious instead about Wendy’s experience made all the difference. When I chose to stop lecturing and to start listening I actually learned something that, not being frail and on multiple pills, I had zero insight into. And if this happens with my neighbour of 25 years, I shudder to think how often I’ve fallen into the same trap when working with stakeholders I barely know.

The lesson for me (again!) is that, even when I am feeling right, when my opinion seems self-evidently the correct one, I still have the choice to put my view aside and to be curious instead about how others see things. I was sort of outraged with Wendy’s position, but in choosing to ask rather than tell I gave us both options.

Having heard what was really troubling Wendy we were then able to have a constructive conversation about her worries and her needs. She gained some confidence. We organised a lift to the clinic. She got her first shot. Job done. Meanwhile I have re-learned that I can blame ‘them’ for their deficient ideas, or choose to be curious instead. Now to find a vaccine against my own righteous insensitivity!