Part 1: Saturday, 4th of March 2017
This post has been a long time coming – it was over a week ago since I attended but the sheer volume of things that I learnt meant there was a lot to process. The first day of the workshop was held at the Victoria State Library. The first session was named Making a Difference for Animals and was presented by Tobias, also known as, The Vegan Strategist. Tobias spoke from an effective altruism point of reference in deciding how to best make a difference from animals, for example, by means of “spare time” advocacy like volunteering for Animals Australia, Internet advocacy like what I’m doing right now or advocating for animals though your choice of career. Tobias discussed the choice between not for profit vs profit in careers in animal advocacy – profit is not a dirty word, especially if you’re creating alternative products for mainstream consumption and hence taking animals out of the food chain. Moreover, making handsome money and donating 10% (or more) to effective animal organizations (the bedrock of effective altruism) is a great way to make a difference for animals. Of all money donated to charity 99% is donated to “people” based charities and of the 1% is donated to animal based charities, only a measly 0.015% is donated to farmed animals. More on this issue in future posts.
After a break, my role model Dr Melanie Joy did a presentation on Effective Communication. This is obviously hugely important not only in vegan advocacy but in daily life. Melanie discussed effective communication to be a method and set of skills including the following:
Integrity – people passionate about social justice movements tend to be people of high integrity as they care about demonstrating their values though their behaviours. This can be true in most areas of life, but sometimes forgotten in communication. She discussed how it is important to remain empathic and consider what you look like through the others eyes, no matter how passionate you are about an issue, including veganism
Process over content – content is the “what” of communication, process is the “how”. Melanie discussed how regardless of how convincing or well-rehearsed your vegan speech is, people remember how you made them feel in a communication. Did an interaction leave the other feeling shamed or sustained? Ultimately, an unhealthy communication process is shaming and shamed people do one of two things – withdraw or attack. At its core, Melanie proposed a profoundly insightful concept that shaming another (for anything) is fundamentally unethical.
“The best way to get someone to do the opposite of what you want them to do is to shame them for their behaviour” – Dr. Melanie Joy
So how can we communicate effectively about veganism?
The Four C’s of Communication:
Curiosity – “open mindedness” is art of being curious about other people’s thoughts and beliefs even if you’re heard it before and/or disagree. Try to foster a genuine, interested, curiosity in what others are proposing or asking of you. If someone tells you they love animals, telling them they don’t because they eat them is “defining another’s reality” – in their reality they can and do love some and eat others. Telling them they don’t is then a shaming experience and people with either withdraw or attack, either of which renders the situation a lost cause in the way of effective vegan advocacy. Instead, by remaining curious about another’s love of animals (“what is it you love about animals?”, “tell me more about how much you love your dog”) people feel heard and will be more likely to want to hear from us in return.
Compassion – “open heartedness” in effective communication is about not seeking perfection in others and being kind and encouraging with where others are right now, not where you’d prefer them to be. If you find yourself losing compassion in a communication and it goes past the point of no return, do yourself a favour and stop the conversation.
Clarity – this is a skill that is often referred to in counselling as paraphrasing, and basically refers to repeating back (obviously not parroting) what you’ve interpreted the other to be saying. This is validating for people in that they can feel heard, or it can give them the opportunity to correct you. When done well, clarifying can also be a good opportunity to challenge carnistic defences you detect in conversation such as “I hear you have felt really connected to animals but at some point in your life you made a distinction about which animals are edible and which are not, would that be fair to say or have I misinterpreted what you said?” It should go without saying, you can only challenge carnistic defences you actually hear, don’t set out to challenge a particular carnistic defence from the outset of the conversation.
Courage – it takes courage to make oneself vulnerable in conversation with another. If someone is courageous enough to make themselves vulnerable to you about the shallowness of their justification for meat eating, honour that vulnerability. I like to tell people about my own transition, the grief associated with the loss of an easy, convenient life following the path of least resistance. I like to tell them about the dreams I initially had about sausage rolls and sadness experienced when you feel misunderstood and shamed by your family and significant others, but that even despite that hardship it is still the most fulfilling and empowering decision I have made about my life.
Some more notes on effective communication:
Don’t equate difference with others with deficiency. In the book I’m currently reading there is also a real emphasis on this concept, that differences don’t equate to incompatibility. We are different from others, from meat eater and from other vegans alike. Conflict is normal and the way that we manage conflict is important.
Don’t become a lazy communicator. Word choice is so trivial in conversation, yet so important in how our message is received by other. For example, saying “good work but…” is almost always received by another as criticism which can be shaming, whereas “good work and…” can be effective in encouraging change.
Become self-observing of your thoughts, feelings and needs otherwise they may be “acted out”. Becoming vegan comes with a whole new paradigm of looking at the world, whilst it is full of joy, there can often be a feeling of living among great global injustice and suffering. Developing the ability to observe and express one’s thoughts, feelings and needs safely and constructively, rather than say, yelling at someone eating McDonalds, is an important part of impulse control, personal development and self-care.
Have a healthy agenda. Do you enter particular conversations with an agenda? An agenda to convince the other to go vegan or an agenda to be right? This is not an effective communication strategy as it is difficult to cultivate the four C’s when you have a hidden, or not so hidden agenda. It is also important to recognise that some people will try to engage you about veganism but have an agenda themselves not to listen and want to argue for arguments sake. In this way, one learns to only invest energy and time into people referred to as the “low hanging fruit”. These are the people that need only perhaps to feel supported in their transition into the brave new world. These are people who are likely to value personal integrity and justice, who are genuinely interested in speaking to you to change from their current meat eating paradigm, who are already highly empathic and perhaps contemplating change. They are ripe for the picking!
Don’t define others reality. Allow others to be the expert of their own experience, even if you have a psychology degree – you are not a mind reader. We have our realities defined by our parents as children, “you can’t be hungry, you just ate”, “you were embarrassed in class? Oh, it wasn’t that bad”. Even with the best of intensions, defining others reality is experienced by the other as shaming. But we live in a shaming culture! You have had it done to you and you have done it to others, we are all guilty of doing it – vegans do this often by telling meat eaters they don’t love animals because they eat them. We can disagree with others without defining others reality, in many empathic ways. So, how do we get out of the mess that is defining others reality in the first instance? Firstly, don’t assume you understand others reality, use the four C’s to foster connection and understanding and watch the magic happen.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Steven R. Covey
Above was the free lunch provided – thanks Animals Australia!
Listening. Easier said than done, right?
Melanie spoke about judging being the mental counterpart to shame. Therefore, fostering non-judgement through the use of four C’s facilitates the other to feel accepted and understood. Giving non-verbal cues and feedback is important in effective listening to maintain not only acceptance and understanding but also power and control. If you withhold non-verbal and verbal feedback, the other will usually feel manipulated, as though they shared more than was safe to tell you. Also, there will be times were you are actually not up to listening, for me this around 5.30PM, were I can hardly string a sentence, let alone actively listen. In identifying blocks of time were it is difficult you for to listen, you do yourself and the other a great service by postponing an important conversation to a more appropriate time.
Melanie expressed an effective way to effectively express yourself; a strategy called whole messages derived from a non-violent communication approach. It is a strategy that can be integrated into everyday communications but is particularly effective in communicating sensitive matters, such as your vegan values to your loved ones.
Observation – what have you observed objectively, an eye roll, huffing and puffing, a specific put down?
Thought or perception – what was your subjective experience of this observation, what did you think?
Emotion – What emotion did it evoke in you?
Need – What do you need or what would you prefer they do instead in future? See example used in workshop below.
Melanie touched on something really validating to me; that people want to be in our lives have an obligation to make an effort to understand our inner world – what veganism means to us. This of course applies to everything, not just veganism. You don’t have to be a football fanatic to love a footballer but you are obliged to gain an understanding of what football means to them, educating yourself about the rules of the game can be helpful and spectating and supporting in times of loss or hardship fosters reliability and trust. I think veganism can be pushed outside this realm of mutual relationship obligations as it is often politically charged and culturally taboo. However, when it comes to relationships with others, it is no different to football. Once people get over the shock and horror, they realise that veganism isn’t really that strange after all and that vegan food actually tastes alright!
During a communications emotions can be high.
Melanie recommended the following:
Try to catch yourself before you’re too triggered
Notice when your emotions start to intensify
Share your emotions (e.g. “a part of me is really angered by what you just said” or “I’m having a strong reaction to what you just said”)
Manage your emotions, stop a conversation if you need too
Attend to others emotions if appropriate and assure them
Vegan advocacy skills
Melanie proposed three key obstacles to effective vegan advocacy:
Not knowing ones audience; know when to advocate and when not to
Underdeveloped advocacy skills, particularly communication skills
Emotional reactivity and secondary traumatic stress disorder, that is. advocating even though it is compromising you own well being
Melanie spoke about how the facts don’t sell the vegan ideology. People are suspicious of “facts”, so reeling off facts is not an effective way to engage someone in a conversation about veganism. Another ineffective means of advocacy is “taking the moral high ground”. Melanie explained that even if you don’t explicitly claim to be “more moral” than a meat eater, we’re seem as moralist as we are siding with a victim, even though we are not the direct victim of oppression and violence. Melanie explained that it is easier to leave morality out of discussions about veganism, as you can believe meat eating is immoral and still engage in the behaviour, as most philosophers do. Melanie stated that she does not believe vegans to be more moral than non-vegans, as this is a very one dimensional view of a person. This segment was followed by question time in which one person shared that he does feel he has greater morality than meat-eaters. Melanie explained that even if vegans are “more moral” than meat-eaters, taking the moral high ground does not serve vegans or the movement, as it is ultimately shaming of others, which is ineffective in advocating for animals.
Who is more moral; a humanitarian who eats meat or a vegan that bullies people? – Melanie Joy
Instead of getting caught up in issues of morality, Melanie advised the following:
If someone asks you if you’re vegan, a personable response is “I am today but for much of my life I wasn’t”. I think this highlights that there is no moral high ground, and that changing food choices is just a behaviour change, of which anyone is capable.
When someone asks you why you are vegan, don’t reel facts, instead share your story; the shorter and sweeter the better.
Through your story illuminate carnistic defences if possible, such as “I wasn’t seeing the meat that I was eating as a sentient being/individual”, “I thought I needed to eat meat to survive” etc.
Remember your own carnism and the lens though which you used to see the world, think back to the language you used to use and incorporate your bilingualism into the conversation
Avoid “allergen words”. Even though as vegans we know dairy to be rape and meat to be murder, these words are of course disgust-invoking and taboo to speak about in our culture, we don't want people to associate veganism with disgust and extremism. You can communicate your message without shaming people with allergen words.
Keep it positive, put an emphasis on why it has been a great decision for you, for your health, wellbeing and spirituality.
“Effective vegan advocacy is communicating in a way that increases the chances the other will allow themselves to be influenced. It is not “changing” hearts and minds, but rather “opening” hearts and minds” - Dr Melanie Joy
Next post: Part 2: Sunday, 5th of March.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows – Melanie Joy
Living among meat eaters – Carol J Adams
Melanie Joy’s website: https://www.carnism.org/
Tobias’s blog: http://veganstrategist.org/