Speaking from the Heart: Keys to Effective Communication for Vegans

Bowls with salad and vegetables on table
Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

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.

Note: This article is based on my recent keynote presentation for www.WeDIDIt.Health, available on YouTube.

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.

7 Tips for Inspiring Others toward a Plant-Based Lifestyle

Vegetables, chickpeas, and pita in a blue ceramic dish
Photo by Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash

Note:  This article contains excerpts from the e-book 7 Best Practices to Inspire Your Loved Ones to Go Plant-Based (available through WeDidIt.Health)

Have you experienced the amazing healing power of a plant-based lifestyle?  After celebrating your own health improvements, and learning about the extensive research supporting a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet, it’s common to wish that everyone could experience these same benefits.  Perhaps you have loved ones who are struggling with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or cancer, and you long to nudge them toward this lifestyle. 

But all too often, others turn a deaf ear when we encourage them to try this way of eating.  There is so much confusing and conflicting information out there about nutrition and health, it may appear as if a plant-based diet is just another fad.

Often others dismiss what we are sharing and question it in light of information from the media or even their health care providers.  In the face of others’ reluctance or outright resistance, it’s easy to give up on encouraging healthier choices. However, while you can’t control others’ choices, you can help to inspire curiosity and hope.  Stoking these embers of hope for a healthier future may start them on the path to change. 

Below are seven tips for empowering others toward greater health with a plant-based diet. Consider the person(s) you hope to inspire as you mindfully engage in these practices.

1. Consider their readiness for change.   

While we may wish to influence everyone to become healthier through a plant-based diet, the reality is that a plant-exclusive diet is not (yet) embraced by society.  Many people find it difficult to adopt a way of eating that appears to go against familiar norms and traditions.  Even some medical practitioners promote diets high in meat and dairy, and low in carbohydrates.  Receiving this type of advice from trusted experts makes it difficult for many to accept that there is extensive research validating the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

In addition, research on the process of lifestyle change suggests that individuals go through stages of readiness in considering, initiating, and successfully maintaining change.  When sharing about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, it’s helpful to consider the other person’s stage of change to determine which approaches will be most effective.

Where is your loved one on the change continuum?  Are they strongly opposed to trying a plant-based diet?  Are they somewhat receptive, but have a number of concerns and questions?  Are they receptive and interested, but unsure how to make this lifestyle change in a healthy and sustainable way?  

If the other person is firmly opposed to considering a plant-based diet, being a positive role model (practice 4) may be your best bet.  However, be alert for times of greater receptivity to take the opportunity to share information that is relevant to their specific interests and concerns.

For those who are somewhat receptive, but are ambivalent due to concerns and/or misinformation about a vegan diet, practices 2, 3, and 5 may be helpful to lessen their fears, and raise awareness of the positives of this lifestyle.

If your loved one is intrigued by the possibilities of a plant-based diet, but unsure how to go about this new lifestyle, explore how to best support them with practical resources, role modeling, and developing new skills (practices 4, 5, and 6).

2. Tailor your message to their deepest concerns

We are most impactful when we share information that is highly relevant to the other person.  This may involve asking open-ended questions to understand their concerns surrounding health, nutrition, and diet, and their goals and wishes for these areas.  What matters most to them?  What are their greatest challenges and concerns?  Listen and reflect back the key points they are sharing.  This helps the other to feel heard, and allows you to focus your message in a way that is meaningful to the other person.

If they have serious health problems that impact their quality of life, they may be inspired by hearing stories of yourself or others healing through plant-based nutrition.  For those who value physical fitness, it may pique their interest to learn about the benefits of this lifestyle for athletic performance.  If they are environmentally conscious, they may be motivated by learning that a plant-based lifestyle can reduce their carbon footprint even more than switching to a hybrid car. 

3. Address their barriers to change

If the other person seems reluctant to consider a plant-based diet, explore their fears and obstacles.  What do they see as being in the way?  Listen empathically without judging.  Provide support and understanding.  Perhaps you once experienced similar challenges on your plant-based journey, and can build a sense of shared understanding by acknowledging this.

Once they have shared their concerns and feel heard, they may be more receptive to information, resources, and/or learning how you overcame similar challenges. For example, if they think it’s too much work to change their diet, perhaps you can suggest meal planning and cooking together to develop new skills.  If they are afraid they won’t enjoy the food, you might explore plant-based recipes that create a healthier version of their favorite meals. 

4. Show, don’t just tell

One of the best ways to inspire others is to role model a healthy lifestyle.  Develop a repertoire of scrumptious vegan dishes to share at social gatherings.  Continue to educate yourself on the benefits of WFPB nutrition and build a support network with others who embrace this way of eating.  This will help you remain inspired and committed to your plant-based lifestyle.  As you enjoy better health, while overcoming any challenges in the process, your positive outlook and results may be an inspiration to your loved ones.

5. Share compelling documentaries. 

Invite family and friends to watch What the Health, Forks over Knives, or The Game Changers.  It’s amazing how many people have awakened to the benefits of going plant-based through watching a documentary.  You might also recommend an article or a podcast that is relevant to their specific concerns.  As they hear information shared by experts, and witness the stories of those whose health has been transformed, their view may expand to see nutrition and health in a whole new way. 

6. Focus on positive messages and encouragement

Lasting lifestyle change occurs more readily when individuals connect with their own reasons for change versus feeling pressured or brow-beaten.  Support your loved one when they express interest in making healthy dietary changes.  Encourage any positive steps toward a healthier, plant-strong lifestyle, rather than critiquing their unhealthy choices.  It’s OK to express concerns about your loved one’s dietary choices and the potential impact on health, but you will be most impactful if these concerns are expressed in a compassionate and respectful way.  Be aware that criticism and unsolicited advice is rarely effective in eliciting behavior change.  Be an ally on their health journey, rather than an adversary.

7. Be patient (and keep faith)

Everyone has their own process of change, and it’s important to respect other people’s journeys.  It may help to recall your own experience of moving toward a plant-based lifestyle, including any initial skepticism or resistance, as well as setbacks you may have experienced along the way.  Also remember your reasons for being plant-based, so that you remain hopeful and motivated to continue sharing the message.

Often many seeds are planted over time before a person is ready to implement and maintain healthy lifestyle changes.  Keep communication open, even if the other person doesn’t immediately adopt a plant-based lifestyle.  Continue to share intriguing stories about the health, environmental, and ethical benefits of eating plant-based.  Keep bringing delicious vegan food to social events.  Someday you may be pleasantly surprised when the others in your life tell you they are eating a lot more plants.  Maybe they will even be sharing great plant-based resources with you! 

Continue to hold your vision for a healthier world.  With each person who awakens to the health and planetary benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, we create an unstoppable momentum toward the healing and flourishing for all.

For a complimentary copy of my e-book on this topic (7 Best Practices to Inspire Your Loved Ones to Go Plant-Based, published by Hippocrates Table LLC, 2022;), which contains more in-depth tips and resources, take the one-question survey at WeDidIt.Health.  You will then contribute to sharing the plant-based message with others as well!

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create healthy 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 psychological and emotional benefits of a vegan lifestyle.

Navigating Social Challenges on the Vegan Path

Photo by Paulette Wooten on Unsplash

I was at a birthday gathering with my husband’s family only a couple of weeks after going vegan.  After several years as a vegetarian, a series of awakening experiences led me to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle.  But it was still new to me.   I was still coming to terms internally with all that I was learning.

I found myself at a loss – how do I graciously decline the birthday cake, without making a big scene?

I was committed to this path, but I was still processing everything I had learned….about dairy cows, egg laying hens, and the cruelty inherent in the animal “products” we use in daily life.  I didn’t feel ready to verbalize any of it – especially at a birthday party.

I had been vegetarian for 12 years for ethical reasons, and my decision to not eat animal flesh had been accepted by my loved ones.  From early in my vegetarian journey, I limited dairy and eggs, primarily eating them only in social situations.  But after opening my eyes and heart to the many forms of cruelty to animals, I committed to living as compassionately as possible in my choices of food, clothing, cosmetics, and household items.

And now, as I approached the birthday gathering, so soon after my vegan decision, I wondered how I would handle the inevitable cake made with eggs and dairy.  Even though I was deeply committed to all that veganism represented, I couldn’t say the “V” word.   I found the word “vegan” frozen on my lips. 

I wondered why it was so hard to say it aloud to people in general, much less my loved ones. It seemed that it shouldn’t be so difficult.  But, in reflecting, I realized that I was still overwhelmed by what I had learned:

  • The lives of dairy cows, so far removed from the bucolic scenes shown on milk cartons
  • The reality that cows don’t just “give” their milk—it’s meant for a baby calf, who is taken away soon after birth
  • The crowded and cruel conditions for commercial egg-laying hens (even those advertised as “free range”)
  • The slaughter process that is the end fate for all of these animals

All of these images still burned deeply in my mind.

I didn’t know what to say or how to explain it to others. I didn’t want to ruin the party. I didn’t want to stand out and be different. I didn’t want to make things difficult for others. I didn’t want to come across as judgmental. I didn’t want to be judged by others who didn’t understand veganism.

At that particular birthday party, I was not yet ready to speak up.  With my husband’s support, I managed to avoid eating the cake, and no one else seemed to notice.  However, while I succeeded in abstaining from the non-vegan cake and at the same time avoiding potential conflict with others, I became aware of an internal conflict…between the desire to live consistently with my values and the desire to fit in socially

I realized that in order to successfully live a vegan lifestyle, I would need to develop a plan for handling social situations.

In those early weeks and months of being vegan, I found myself going through a process of ambivalence and re-commitment to my path.  I would read something or watch a documentary, and be deeply distressed about what I was learning.  But then, in social situations, I would be drawn to the path of least resistance, remaining silent.

Almost as if in a trance, I would fall back into old, familiar ways of thinking—and lose connection with my deep values and commitment.  And yet, as I observed my inner struggle with compassion, ultimately I was able to stay committed to making this change.  I realized that ambivalence and the desire to return to what feels familiar are often part of the process of lasting change.

For another social event, about a month later, I had time to prepare my approach.  I spoke to the hostess ahead of time, and explained my decision to go vegan.  I let her know that I would like to bring something vegan to the gathering.  I was anxious initially, not sure how she would respond.  But she was very supportive, and even expressed admiration about my lifestyle.

Through those early weeks and months, I learned to come to terms with my identity as a vegan.  I committed to honoring my values, even when others didn’t see what I saw, even when I felt isolated or misunderstood, even when it was inconvenient.  There was an internal transformation that was necessary before I found more ease in sharing my food and lifestyle choices with others. 

Research suggests that I am not alone in my fears about challenging the status quo. Social stigma and negative perceptions from others are very real concerns among vegans. And yet, mastering these fears and learning to speak up with others are essential to thriving as a vegan. 

Here are some tips for navigating the social waters:

  • Stay connected to your reasons for going vegan.  Most of us have been conditioned to eat animals and to view this as “natural, normal, and necessary”.  It takes time to undo this conditioning, and it takes courage to walk a new path that others may not understand.  Watching documentaries, reading books, checking out vegan websites, and connecting with other vegans will provide support and encouragement as you embark on this new way of living.
  • Recognize that your needs matter.  I had fears about being seen as difficult or demanding by eating in a way that was different than others.  Gradually I realized that my personal needs and desires mattered, too.  We help no one by negating our own well-being or deeper values.
  • Identify the situations that are most challenging for you and develop an action plan.  Social events, travel, and eating out can be difficult for new vegans.  Rather than leaving it to chance, or figuring it out in the moment, be proactive in planning a strategy.  For example, instead of hoping there will be something you can eat at that social event, bring delicious vegan food you can eat and share with others.  When eating out, call ahead or take the waiter aside to ask about vegan options.  When travelling, bring healthy snacks, just in case. 
  • Find the right time and place to share your veganism with others.   Not everyone will be open to your discoveries about animal cruelty, or about the health or environmental benefits of plant-based eating.  And sitting at the dinner table is not the best time or place to share these discoveries with others. Consider sharing about your veganism prior to the meal or gathering, or in a private conversation at another time.
  • Learn good communication skills.  Beyond Beliefs, by Dr. Melanie Joy, is an excellent book about initiating constructive conversations with others.  She also teaches the importance of having vegan allies, people in your life who may not be fully vegan, but who support you and stand with you in your decision.
  • Others may surprise you in positive ways.  Many of my fears about others’ reactions were unfounded.  When I shared from a place of authenticity and non-judgment, others were supportive.  In fact, it often led to interesting conversations and greater closeness, even when the other person was not personally ready to embrace veganism. Many later asked for guidance on how to eat more plant-based.
  • Bring joyfulness to your vegan journey.  Whatever your reason for going vegan, whether out of concern about animals, the planet, or your own health, there is great peace, joy, and freedom that comes from honoring your deepest values.  Rather than deprivation, many vegans experience a surprising sense of affirmation, abundance, and possibility. And this is something we naturally want to share with others.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist, transformational coach, and vegan lifestyle educator.

Need support on your plant-based journey?  Check out these resources, websites, and book recommendations for guidance and information.