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Use This Tool to Talk About COVID19

RiverHouse Press Blog by Ron Kraybill

With COVID19 cases rocketing once again, old questions return.    We are all inescapably affected by the behaviors of others on this so we have to work out the answers with other people around us. 

As much as possible, we need to do this through dialogue. In my Style Matters framework that’s the Cooperating conflict style; Thomas and Kilmann call it Collaborating. Solutions achieved through dialogue garner more support and trigger less resistance than solutions imposed from above.

Cooperating as a conflict style involves responding in ways that are both assertive about our own needs and supportive of the needs and perspectives of others.   (For a quick visual over-view of the conflict styles framework and how Cooperating fits in, see this slide show). That’s a tricky combo.  The rewards can be enormous, but it  requires skill and commitment to pull off. 

Needed: Tools for structuring dialogue.  When working with numbers of people you can greatly raise the odds of successful use of Cooperating if you use tools for structuring dialogue.  A well-chosen tool does the heavy lifting of facilitation –  enabling people to express their views clearly and respectfully to each other, and doing so in a way that seems almost effortless.

Forget COVID19 for a moment: It’s a no-brainer that everyone who lives or works with other people needs simple tools for dialogue at their fingertips all the time.  As a leader of almost any kind, you’ll get more done and feel less anxious about controversies if you have several at the ready for moments when heat rises.  There are plenty of them out there on the web.  Or you can invest in my little book, Cool Tools for Hot Topics, which packs summaries of about 35 such tools into a slender six dollar volume. 

Dolan’s Know Your Number Scale for structuring discussion about COVID19 risks.  Carrie Dolan, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at University of Virginia, has devised a simple technique to help people talk about managing COVID19 protections.  Her Know Your Number Scale is a simple one-to-five scale to helps people talk about their personal risk level and its implications for behavior. 

In a short NPR interview Dolan says we need to improve ability to communicate about personal risk levels.  She says if we do not, we will not be able to stop the spread of COVID19.

Using the scale helps eliminate “the judgement factor”, as Dolan puts it, as people communicate about their needs and feelings regarding risk of exposure to the virus. Everybody has certain risk factors they must consider for themselves. The scale helps people review these and communicate their wishes clearly to others. In group and team settings, people can then more easily decide how to conduct themselves with others and feel less anxious and upset.

Her scale has five levels of attitude towards risk, from the most most lax (Level 5) to the most conservative (Level 1).  
Level 5 – These people consider themselves at very little risk.  Due to age, general good health,  vaccination, or any other reason, they feel safe to move around freely without concern about masking or other safety measures.
Level 4 – Feel fairly risk-free; they are moving around in the world, but with precautions.
Level 3 – Feel risk-free only in certain carefully controlled settings.  They limit their interactions and their movements strategically.
Level 2 – Have other serious health challenges or interact with people who do and must be protected.
Level 1 – Have serious health concerns; are not leaving their house or interacting with others at all. 

I’ve slightly re-worked Dolan’s framework into the following:

You could use it in a meeting, on Zoom or in-person, and invite people to share the level they are in.

In an in-person meetings, you could use this chart with the dialogue tool known as the Spectrum.   Ask people to choose a number from the chart that describes  them.  Then sketch out an imaginary spectrum in the room, say from front to back or side to side.  Ask everyone to get up and walk to a place on the spectrum that corresponds to their choice.   

In a few seconds you will have a physical representation of the risk tolerance of the entire group sketched before your eyes.  You can take it in various directions from here.  You could:

  • Invite people to share with others near them why they are standing where they are.  This is a good place to start if there is a lot of tension in the group about the issue, for in the smaller sub-groups of like-minded people that will form, people will feel safer to express their views.   Giving people an opportunity to talk about where they are personally in a space that feels safe to them is always a good place to begin.
  • Invite people to call out why they are standing where they are.
  • Walk down the line as facilitator and invite various people to explain why they are standing where they are (with the whole group listening to your exchanges.
  • Without discussion, ask people to go back to their seats and continue a discussion from there.

A different way to use Dolan’s framework would be to simply introduce it to people who work together and encourage them to use it in their conversations with each other about masking.  

Bear in mind that it is not by itself a decision-making process.  It is a tool for dialogue that can play a key role in decisionmaking.  But if your goal is to make a joint decision, you will have to add a component for that.

The Know Your Number Scale highlights people’s differing sense of risk and would be particularly useful in dialogue about masking.  But it’s clear that right now there’s an even more volatile issue taking the fore: vaccine refusal is prolonging the pandemic and jeopardizing everyone by providing ample space for the vaccine to mutate into more virulent form.  Heat is rising rapidly on this issue, and pressure is building to impose costs of some kind for not vaccinating.   

This reminds us that it is not possible to use Cooperating as a response to all conflicts all the time.   Situations do arise in which the goal of protecting the majority can be achieved only if we are willing to sacrificing good relationships and cooperation with a minority.   It’s a tough call to know when to deploy the Directing style, as we call it in the conflict styles framework.   

I think we are very close to such a moment now.  The costs to all of pandering to the resistant minority are indescribably high, potentially life-threatening to many (since delays in vaccination prolong the period in which the virus is able to use unvaccinated people as a lab for uninhibited development of even more deadly variants that can outwit all present immunities).

But we should not switch abruptly to a non-relational, coercive Directing response.   That will trigger massive resistance and backfire.  Rather, we should give high priority to dialogue-based responses (Cooperating) like the above and as our core strategy.  Even if we feel compelled to ramp up Directing responses, we should not abandon these;  we can and should have a two-style response.   

And rather than trying to coerce people into vaccination, we should instead focus on reducing access to the benefits of community membership to those who choose not to accept the will of the community.   Make demonstration of vaccination a requirement for participation in public events.   Make certain public and employer benefits contingent upon having received vaccination, etc.   We shouldn’t be telling people what to do with their own lives, but neither should they expect to have the public subsidize the costs of their unwise choices.

Needed: Tools for dialogue about vaccinating!  The Spectrum described above could easily be adapted for this.  What tools have you seen work well to structure conversation about vaccinating?


Ronald S. Kraybill

Dr. Ronald S. Kraybill is a facilitator, consultant and trainer in conflict resolution based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was Senior Advisor on Peacebuilding and Development for the United Nations in Lesotho and the Philippines, 2009-2014, Professor of Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University, 1996-2007, Director of Training at the Centre… MORE >

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