See if you can relate to any of these scenarios…
- It’s time for the annual family Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a turkey in the center of the table. You are newly vegan, distressed about how turkeys and other farmed animals are treated…and wonder how you will handle this.
- You decide at the last minute to go to a colleague’s social gathering. Once you are there, you realize that all the food being served is laden with meat or dairy products, and there is nothing vegan for you to eat.
- You are passionate about the benefits of veganism – for animals, the planet, and human health – and want to share this with others. But you find that most people don’t want to listen and maybe even get annoyed at you for bringing it up.
- Your coworker ridicules you for eating “rabbit food,” and constantly wants to debate you about veganism.
How do we handle these challenging situations? Each situation requires us to connect with what we truly want and need…and to take actions that move us toward meeting these ends.
In each situation, heartful communication is key. Communication that connects us with our selves and with others in meaningful and impactful ways. Communication that creates a space for true connection and true transformation.
Research in the areas of social science, psychology, and biology shows that we are literally wired to need connection with others. And because of our wiring, the fear of being rejected by others is deeply ingrained in us. Even if we aren’t conscious of it, that fear can lurk in our psyche at some deep level and make us reluctant to speak up when there may be conflict or disagreement.
Countless studies show how important social support is for our well-being. In fact, loneliness and isolation can be as detrimental to our health as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, or lack of exercise. In addition, studies of the Blue Zones find that positive social connections promote longevity and quality of life.
For all these reasons, it’s important that we learn healthy relationship and communication skills. And yet, as vegans, we often face unique social situations that can challenge our sense of connection with others.
Let’s face it – conversations about veganism can elicit strong emotions on all sides. For many non-vegans, social conditioning around food habits, along with the carnistic belief system that permeates our culture, contributes to strong emotional reactions when talk about diet comes up. And for vegans, heightened awareness of the suffering inherent in animal agriculture often drives intense feelings.
When a conversation triggers strong emotions, it can be hard to access our wise brain. Under these circumstances, it’s typical to go into fight-or-flight mode. Consequently, our blood flow is not going toward the parts of our brain that can respond in nuanced ways, but rather toward our more primitive brain, preparing us to fight or flee. This can play out in wanting to prove our point at all costs (fight), or at the other extreme, shutting down communication (flight). In either case, it’s unlikely that a meaningful conversation is going to happen.
Maybe you’ve experienced this in your communication as a vegan. Think about the scenarios at the beginning of this article. If you’ve been in similar situations, how have you expressed your feelings and perspectives? And how has the other person (or people) responded? If you are like many of us, you may have felt very frustrated and not heard. When we feel not heard or understood, we may find ourselves raising our voice or using more attacking language in how we communicate. And when we express our feelings from that state of mind, often the other person becomes defensive, and the conversation does not lead to any productive solutions or resolution.
We need to have ways to shift out of fight-or-flight mode back into our Wise Brain, so we can integrate mind, body, and spirit together into our words and actions.
How do we do this? The authors of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High suggest that we can shift to our Wise Brain by reflecting on our deeper intentions for the conversation. By connecting with our deeper intentions, and communicating accordingly, we create a greater sense of safety in the interaction. This sense of safety helps to lower defensiveness, and supports a meaningful, impactful, and mutually beneficial conversation.
Here are some tips for creating safe space for effective communication:
- Connect with your intentions for the conversation. Ask yourself questions such as: What is the message I want to express? What do I hope to accomplish? What do I want for my relationship with this person? How might I best communicate or express myself to reach my purpose? Asking these questions can help to shift you out of reactivity to your emotionally intelligent Wise Brain.
- If you start to notice that you or the other person are becoming defensive, arguing, or shutting down, shift your focus to restoring mutual safety, calm, and connection. This is important, so that both of you can calm your nervous systems and return to meaningful, generative communication. When people feel defensive, or are in fight-or-flight mode, they are not engaged in the part of their brain where learning, change, or productive communication can happen.
- To help restore safety, you may want to express your intentions for the conversation, such as creating an environment where you and the other person are each able to express your feelings and perspectives and come to a mutual understanding.
- Pay attention to your tone of voice and body language, as these are central to creating safe space for healthy communication.
- Once a sense of safety is reestablished, you can return to the topic at hand, as space has now been created for meaningful dialogue. The other person will likely be more open to your message, and perhaps even curious to understand more.
- When you express yourself, use I-messages, sharing your own story, feelings, wishes, and needs. No one can argue with your own story and feelings, and this way of sharing allows your listener to feel less defensive, with more curiosity and openness.
- Draw on reflective listening, allowing for a flow of information and sharing. Being curious to understand the other person’s perspective (rather than judging or attacking) may bring you to a greater mutual understanding.
- Agree to disagree, if needed. Come to a mutually workable agreement, where possible. Recognize that if there isn’t immediate agreement, sometimes you may be planting seeds that lead to new understanding and transformation down the road.
- Check out great resources for vegan communication, such as Dr. Melanie Joy’s books, Beyond Beliefs and Getting Relationships Right.
Learning healthy communication skills is an ongoing process. When it comes to emotionally laden conversations, our success starts with calming our nervous system, connecting with our Wise Brain, and creating safe space for dialogue to occur.
Effective communication is key to thriving as a vegan – and to creating a more compassionate, healthy world. Heartful communication allows a flow of information and sharing, and a meeting of hearts and minds. And in that meeting of hearts and minds, true connection and transformation can occur.
A version of this article was later published in New Mexico Vegan Magazine, January 2023.
Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create healthy, compassionate lives that nurture mind, body, spirit, and planet. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at e-Cornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the transformative impact of a vegan lifestyle. She serves as a psychology advisor for WeDIDIt.Health, an online community that shares the benefits of a plant-powered lifestyle.