Street conversations: talking about veganism effectively

When you are talking to someone not only about a sometimes unpopular topic, but one that may also attempt to dismantle their lifelong beliefs, there are some important things to consider.

As part of my team at Animal Rights South Australia, one of the more regular forms of outreach we engage in is street education. The conversations we have often follow handing out leaflets with vegan cupcakes (among other treats), or showing Australian footage of animal farming to members of the public. As you can imagine, sometimes this can be a distressing experience. Often however, this can be one of the most powerful opportunities to assess someone’s awareness and motivation for change and start opening a meaningful discussion. This is an ideal opportunity to talk about what they’ve just seen, or why on earth you’re so willingly handing out free food. This is also the opportunity to provide the means necessary to empower the individual who has stopped to engage with you, an incredibly important part of any vegan outreach.

So, once you have someone’s attention – how do you create an effective, flowing dialogue?

The following are a list of helpful factors I’ve highlighted both from my experience in street advocacy and psychology, as well as from what we know about effective communication:

    • Listen
      There is likely a lot you want to say. You may have even armed yourself with a number of facts, loaded and ready to be fired after each expected response from the listener. But remember a conversation usually involves a dialogue. Try to be attentive to what others say so that you are not just following your own script. This can come across as automated, insincere, or even bombardment to the other person, who is likely wanting to be heard and considered as much as you are. Feeling unheard does not bode well for wanting to listen.


    • Validate
      This often comes hand in hand with listening and is an incredibly important aspect of any conversation. Validating is acknowledging another person’s perspective. It is not, however, the same as approving of, or agreeing with, that perspective necessarily. If someone is telling you how they’ve tried to go vegan but have failed, that they’re concerned about what to eat, or that they grew up on their family farm and that is why they trust farming – don’t dismiss what they are telling you. There’s a reason it has been expressed. Validation takes many forms (the complete scope of which is beyond this article), but can include for example, reflecting and clarifying what you’ve understood (“I hear you, what you’re saying is that….”), or normalising their experience if it is something anyone would share in common (“I can imagine why you felt angry. Being yelled at would make anyone frustrated”). It is important here to remain authentic, and accurate to what you are taking on board from them. Taking someone else’s perspective helps us broaden our understanding of where they are coming from, and why they may see things the way they do. Validation can also motivate them to listen to you and be more open to new information, leading to a more constructive conversation. People don’t often want to change unless they first feel understood.


    • Ask questions
      Not only does this allow us to gather more information about the person’s stance, which helps us to respond, but asking questions can also help the person answering to become the agent behind their change in thinking. Often we are more receptive to new ways of thinking when the answers come from ourselves. We don’t generally like to be told how to think, nor admit that our beliefs might be erroneous. Rather than telling someone how they should think, ask them questions that might challenge their thinking and lead them to engage in their own critical analysis (this is referred to as the socratic method).
      Examples:What influenced you to stop and have a chat to me today?

      How do you feel about what you just saw?

      What brings you to say that?

      What encouraged you to go vegan/vegetarian when you did?

      (Suffice to say, questions would ordinarily be dispersed in a conversation – not all shot one after the other. ‘Bullet’ questions can feel like bombardment for the listener.)


    • Remain assertive
      Assertiveness is distinct from aggression and a key form of effective communication. Assertiveness involves expressing your thoughts in a respectful manner. Aggression, on the other hand, involves expressing your thoughts in an often alienating and attacking manner. Aggression can lead to a derailed discussion, or an argument wherein no one is listening to ideas, but is rather defending their stance. Examples of aggressive communication include demeaning (e.g. “what would you know?”), blaming/’guilt-tripping’ (e.g. “it’s your fault this is happening”), expressing judgment (e.g. “that’s stupid”, “you’re lazy”), possessing a sarcastic or angry tone, or using intimidating body language.


    • Be mindful
      How are you feeling in a given conversation and how does this impact your own style of communication? Pay attention to yourself, your voice (tone, volume, speed), emotions, body language and body sensations. If you notice your muscles tensing, your heart rate increasing – are you beginning to feel signs of anger or frustration? If so, becoming aware of the emotion and identifying it to yourself (internally) allows you to now be one step ahead of it from driving your next behaviour. 


      Street Conversations: Communication
      Animal Rights South Australia vegan outreach

    • Be comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’
      We will not always have all the answers. Sometimes it’ll be due to error, sometimes it’ll be purely because we just can’t retain all possible information about a particular topic. It is far more sincere (and therefore reliable) for us to admit to not knowing a fact when asked, than to fabricate one or take a guess. It helps to keep resources on hand that you can direct people to for further reading. It may also be beneficial to keep your own guide of resources that you can refer to later if you know that your knowledge is patchy in any given area.


    • Empower
      Often we focus on the problem when talking about veganism. But without discussing a solution, we have only left the person with something unsolvable, and possibly with a feeling of defeat. Assure that you emphasise what the individual can do for animals and how. Remind them of the change that is already happening, the possibilities in their everyday lives for that change, and that they too have the capacity to be a part of it. Animal suffering is a complex topic and can come with some heavy themes and emotions. It is our job to help guide these responses towards inspired action and hopefulness through education.


    • Encourage veganism, not perfection
      We don’t want to portray veganism as something difficult to take on board. We also don’t want to portray veganism as something you can only identify with once you have eliminated every possible animal product from your life. This is an unrealistic expectation because a) even for the most dedicated individual, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all animal-harming products from our current lifestyles and b) learning about all the ways in which animal harm is integrated in our lives does not happen at once. When something is perceived as ‘too hard’, it is more likely that no steps will be taken towards it, rather than some steps that could have a significant impact and lead to further efforts and learning. Remind others how they can start living a more vegan lifestyle by pointing out the major forms of animal use that would likely be relevant to them. Sometimes it helps to identify particular products the individual struggles to eliminate, and offer suggestions for replacements. Be sure to provide them with useful vegan guides (e.g. restaurant guides, product lists, recipes).


Street Conversations: Empower
Animal Rights South Australia vegan outreach


    • Set boundaries
      Meaningful change does sometimes come after heated discussion or even resistance by the speakers. But it is also important to remember that at times it is okay to shut down a conversation and conserve your advocacy energy. If someone is deliberately antagonising, aggressive, or disrespectful towards you despite your best efforts to maintain a constructive conversation, it will be more beneficial to end the interaction than to enter into an argument or power struggle (for the effectiveness of the advocacy as well as your wellbeing!). This is also the case when you feel as though you have gone in loops, or reached a dead end with someone. The energy spent in one conversation may be better spent on numerous others waiting to be had. A helpful method to exit can be to summarise what you’ve discussed, leaving the person with your key points, and directing them to further resources.


Keep in mind that some of the skills mentioned above take in-depth learning and frequent practice to refine. Effective communication is such a broad skill that there are numerous books and in-depth resources designed to help people learn more about it. As an advocate, you do not need to be a perfect communicator or know each skill inside out to be effective. But as an advocate you will frequently have the opportunity to improve your advocacy and your chances of influencing change – so why not seize these opportunities to practice and explore.

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