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Top Five Tips for Having Conversations, Not Confrontations

June 10, 2020

Whether you’re talking to family about the recent protests or fielding questions from friends about your dietary choices, these strategies can help you have discussions rather than arguments.

With politics so polarized, it’s become more and more difficult to talk with people who hold viewpoints different from our own. But having genuine dialogue with those around us is one of the most powerful forms of advocacy. Whether you’re talking to family about the recent protests or fielding questions from friends about your dietary choices, these strategies can help you have discussions rather than arguments.

The Power of Dialogue

Many people have an “us versus them” attitude and believe people from the opposite group are irredeemably bad. But there are many examples to the contrary.

A friend of a colleague saw an animal advocacy student group tabling in his campus dining hall. He thought that people fighting for animals was ridiculous, and he went to mock them. They responded politely, subverting his expectation that they were crazy radicals. Every time he challenged them, they calmly answered his questions. Eventually, when he ran out of questions, he realized that they were right. He started volunteering with the group, became vegan, and wound up working full-time for an animal advocacy organization.

In a more extreme instance, here is a podcast interview with a man who was motivated to leave a Neo-Nazi gang through conversations with his perceived enemies:

“I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn't even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.”

He has now motivated 100 young men to leave the white power movement through his non-profit the Free Radicals Project.

In a similar vein, here is a podcast interview with Daryl Davis, a black blues musician who, through open dialogue and friendship, has convinced 200 people to quit the KKK.

Of course, these are extreme examples. You should never engage with anyone who makes you feel unsafe. It is best to stick with people with whom you already have relationships, like friends, family, and classmates.

Setting the Stage

Context is critical for productive conversations. Wait till your friend or family member raises the topic on their own; you’re unlikely to be successful if you foist the issue upon someone who has shown no interest in discussing it. Make sure that when discussion does arise, you are not in a situation that will cause cognitive dissonance (like talking about the meat industry while they are eating a cheeseburger).

Once you find the right time and place to have a conversation, employ these 5 strategies:

1. Be Patient

It’s easy to lose your temper when people are challenging your beliefs or asking you ridiculous questions. But remaining calm is critical for several reasons.

It will leave people with a positive impression of you and contradict negative stereotypes that they might hold about “liberal snowflakes” or “angry vegans.”

The fact that they’re thinking about the issue is a success in and of itself, and we want to encourage them to keep engaging in dialogue.

Of course, if they are merely making fun of you, you do not have to continue to engage. You can calmly say, “This topic is very important to me so I’d appreciate if you didn’t tease me about it” or end the conversation by saying, “I’d rather not discuss this. Let’s talk about something else.”

2. Ask Questions

Ultimately, only the person you’re speaking with can change their own mind; you can’t change it for them. You can prompt them to explore their own beliefs and morals by asking them questions. It’s also a helpful way to gain insight into someone’s values, in order to more effectively tailor the content of your discussion, per tip #4b. And most importantly, it is a way for you to learn more about the person and their beliefs, so that you can broaden your own perspective and understanding. People can tell whether you’re genuinely listening to them or just pretending. Approach these conversations with an open mind, and the other person is more likely to do the same.

For instance, if someone says that they’re uncomfortable with the protests, you can ask, “What makes you uncomfortable?” “How do you feel about the peaceful protesters?” “Why do you think people are so angry that they’re taking to the streets?” “What do you think about the underlying issues of racial injustice and police brutality?”

3. Make it about yourself

How would you react if someone called you stupid? Most of us would lose our tempers or walk away. Even if you’re not overtly insulting someone, if you’re talking about something they don’t know, they might take that as an implication that they’re stupid for not knowing it. Likewise, if you criticize something that’s a part of their identity or a practice they engage in, they might take it as a criticism of themselves as a person. This will lead them to lash out or shut down.

You can avoid this by making the conversation about your own personal journey. Rather than saying, “Don’t you know that animal agriculture is a leading driver of climate change?” You can say, “I always considered myself an environmentalist. I thought I was doing everything right by riding my bike and conserving electricity. So I was shocked when I learned that the food I was eating was the biggest contributor to my carbon footprint.”

You’re reassuring them that you aren’t better than they are; in fact, you were in the exact same position until you learned surprising new information. This should ease their defensiveness, and make them less likely to respond in a confrontational way when you’re just sharing your story.

4. Find common ground

There are several components to finding common ground, and the first starts before you even open your mouth.

a. Identify with the person,

Rather than viewing them as an adversary, focus on the fact that you were likely in their shoes at some point in your life.

If you’re discussing food choices, remember what you ate and what your beliefs were before you learned the truth about animal agriculture. If you’re discussing politics, remember when your views were shaped by your parents and consider what caused the evolution of those views. If this person comes from a sheltered background or is only consuming one news source, they are likely missing lots of relevant information; in their shoes, you might come to the same conclusions. No one is born enlightened, and none of us are perfect. That’s why open dialogue is so important.

It is critical to approach these conversations from a place of openness, rather than judgment. If you successfully identify with the person, you are more likely to speak to them as a peer, rather than using a patronizing or angry tone, which will make them more inclined to engage with you.

If you find yourself so full of anger that you don’t believe you can find common ground or speak to the person in a genuinely open way, you might be better off not having the conversation at all.

b. Frame your discussion around their interests

Use what you know about the person and their interests to shape your conversation and choose examples most relevant to them. For instance, if you’re talking about diet and the person is interested in social justice, frame your conversation around the treatment of slaughterhouse workers - don’t bend their ear about a topic that’s foreign to them.

c. Frame your discussion around shared values

Even people whose political ideologies are diametrically opposed share some common values.

While text banking for a political candidate, the script for people who supported the opposing candidate was roughly, “I understand. Thank you for doing what you think is best to make America a better place.” Several times, people who had been very hostile would respond to that line with, “Thank you, same to you.” Emphasizing shared goals or morals, even with political “enemies,” can radically change the tone of a conversation.

For instance, we all want our families to be healthy and prosperous. Someone who does not identify as an environmentalist would likely still agree that it’s wrong for factory farms to pollute groundwater, sickening children and destroying property values.

Most people support the Constitution and the rights that it bestows. If you’re discussing the recent protests and know that someone is a strong defender of the Second Amendment, you can ask how it makes them feel when police violate people’s First Amendment right to freedom of assembly by breaking up peaceful protests using tear gas.

Often people will speak or act in seemingly-hypocritical ways, like holding a BBQ serving factory farmed animals in order to raise money for an animal shelter. If you treat this as a contradiction in their morals, they are likely to lash out or shut down because you’re questioning their integrity as a person. But if you look for and affirm the underlying value motivating their behavior, you can build a bridge and enable further discussion. Rather than criticizing them for not also caring about farmed animals, you can praise them for being concerned about shelter pets, then (at a time when it fits into the conversation) ask if they’ve seen Esther the Wonder Pig, or invite them to visit a farm sanctuary with you. You want them to feel welcomed into the world of animal advocacy, not shunned from it.

d. Agree with them

When we’re used to bickering with someone, it can be tempting to try to prove them wrong on every front. We develop a dynamic in which whenever the other person is speaking, we’re just thinking about how to undermine them, and vice-versa. This type of debate can be satisfying in its own way, but it never broadens anyone’s perspective. To undermine this dynamic, really listen to what the other person is saying and see if there’s any part of it that you can agree with. This might be part of the premise of their argument, or it might be the value that underlies it.

For example, if they are saying that fighting climate change would be too expensive and radical, you can say something like, “It is scary to think about spending so much money and totally transforming our energy infrastructure. But the cost of inaction will be even higher, both in terms of property destruction and loss of lives.”

If they say, “But meat tastes so delicious, I could never give it up!” you can respond, “It is delicious! I grew up eating burgers and hot dogs, and when I decided to go veg I was worried that I would miss out on my favorite foods. But it turns out I can still enjoy those same flavors, just made from plants rather than animals.”

By affirming their underlying concerns, you demonstrate that you understand where they’re coming from. If they feel heard and understood, they will be more open to trying to understand where you’re coming from.

e. Avoid using controversial language

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?

In order to have a productive conversation, your goal should be to speak in a way that the person will best understand and be most receptive to listening to, rather than speaking in the way that you find most virtuous.

If there are particular words that you know are likely to elicit an angry, defensive, or confused response, simply avoid them and use other terms to describe the same thing.

The phrase “white privilege” often falls into this category; many white people don’t understand what it means and feel attacked when they hear it. You can get the same idea across by asking questions like:

  • When you were growing up, did your teachers and characters in movies and children’s books look like you?
  • Were your grandparents able to get a mortgage to buy a house?
  • Have you ever feared for your life while jogging or being pulled over for running a stop sign?
  • Do you ever worry about vigilantes murdering your children?
  • How do you think the answers to those questions might differ based on the color of a person’s skin?

Once you’ve reached an understanding about the underlying concept, you can say, “That’s what people generally mean when they use the term ‘white privilege’.”

5. Redirect Questions

Sometimes people will purposely ask a question to make you angry or to derail the conversation. This can best be addressed by briefly acknowledging their question and then redirecting to the main topic at hand.

If you’re trying to talk with someone about the need for police reform and they bring up looting, you can say, “Whether or not we agree with property destruction as a political tactic, hopefully we can all agree that police shouldn’t be able to murder people with impunity.”

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, chances are you’ve been asked many times whether you would kill and eat an animal if you were starving on a desert island. Rather than yelling, “No, but I’ll kill and eat you right now,” you can redirect their question by saying, “I’ve never faced starvation, so I don’t know what I’d be capable of. Luckily, I live in a place and time where I have access to an abundant array of plant-based foods so I can be healthy and happy without eating animals.” You’re not completely ignoring their question, but you’re still getting your main point across without being drawn into an irrelevant argument.

Planting Seeds

Employing all of these strategies successfully takes lots of practice. Remember to be patient with yourself, too. You are very unlikely to convince someone to completely reverse their beliefs in the span of one conversation. If you can get them to think seriously about the issue, that’s a triumph in and of itself. You’re planting seeds that may someday bear fruit.

Katie Cantrell is the Founder & Board Co-Chair for the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition