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August 2005
The Art of Listening: A Tool for Effective Activism
By Bruce Friedrich

Nothing has improved my ability to have effective conversations about vegetarianism and animal rights more than learning to ask questions of the people I’m talking with and really listening to their responses. It’s been hard for me to understand, and even harder to practice, but when someone asks me a question, my best tactic is to ask them a question back as quickly as possible.

Raise your hand—how many of you have been told by someone, after they’ve asked a question and you’ve begun to answer it, “Take a breath, now…calm down!” Okay, that’s a lot of hands. And it’s indicative of one of the things that I have done wrong for most of my 20 years as a vegan advocate. I’ve lectured at people about why they shouldn’t eat animals, rather than listening to their concerns or having a real conversation with them about what’s stopping them from going vegetarian.

As all of you talkers know, you can convince a lot of people to adopt a vegetarian diet if you’re extroverted and practice your arguments enough. For example, if someone asked me, “Why are you a vegetarian?”, off I’d go with: “Animals on factory farms are treated like machines. Within days of birth, for example, chickens have their beaks seared off with a hot blade. Male cows and pigs are castrated without painkillers. All of these animals spend their brief lives in crowded and ammonia-filled conditions, many of them so cramped that they can’t even turn around or spread a wing. Many do not get a breath of fresh air until they are prodded and crammed onto trucks for a nightmarish ride to the slaughterhouse, often through weather extremes and always without food or water. In the slaughterhouse, the animals are hung upside down and their throats are sliced open, often while they’re fully conscious. I believe that if you saw how animals are suffering on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, you would be horrified and you wouldn’t want to support it. Plus, you’ll be healthier—you’ll have more energy, need less sleep, and just feel better if you’re eating a vegan diet.” Whew! It’s a convincing argument, of course, and sure enough, I have talked people into adopting a vegetarian diet and looking at farmed animals in a new way.

But after many years of pounding my arguments into people’s heads at the slightest provocation, I read an essay on effective sales communication in which the author suggested that the number one thing salespeople do wrong is pitch their product from a uniform script, rather than tailoring it to fit their audience. The author said that the best salespeople are either those who have multiple pitches and don’t decide which to use until they’ve asked their prospective client some questions, or those who have one main pitch, but who make it relevant to their client through pointed questions.

These approaches have dual benefits: First, the client feels heard, and likes the salesperson more. Second, the salesperson is able to address the concerns of the client and actually fit the product into the client’s world. This has the added advantage of making the clients feel they are an active part of the decision-making process and not just dragged into something by a smooth pitch.

I make a point of creating opportunities to talk about vegetarianism (e.g., I wear an “Ask me why I’m vegetarian” T-shirt everywhere I go), so I’ve had chances to try these new ideas out on the uninitiated. And it’s like a whole new world, for three key reasons.

First: People really have to think about why they eat tortured corpses
Now, instead of launching into a monologue after I give a very brief explanation for why I’m a vegetarian (saying something like, “I don’t want to pay others to do things to animals that I wouldn’t want to do myself”), I try to move quickly into a question, “Wouldn’t you agree that mutilating an animal without pain relief—ripping a pig’s testicles out of his scrotum or chopping a bird’s beak off without any pain relief—is a bad thing?”

I prefer to use the have-the-same-conversation-with-everyone-but-make-sure-they’re-talking-as-much-as-you-are method of Socratic discussion, rather than tailoring my message to individual concerns. Since everyone agrees that cruelty to animals is a bad thing, I like to focus the discussion on the fact that eating meat means supporting cruelty. By having a conversation I am forcing the person to really confront their own complicity, rather than just hear about it.

Percy Bysshe Shelley explained his vegetarianism by saying he wanted no part of anything he can’t write a pleasant poem about; in other words, we shouldn’t support things that revolt us. Of course, all of us could spend an afternoon picking grains, beans, fruits, or vegetables, but who among us would want to even watch any aspect of what is required to bring chickens, fish, pigs, cattle, dairy or eggs to the table? Who would want to spend even five minutes in a slaughterhouse, with all the blood and horror? How many things are there in our lives that we’re directly supporting, but that we couldn’t even watch?

Most people express remorse at the horrible things that are done to animals on factory farms and at slaughter. Once you have the person agreeing with that, you can encourage them to confront their own culpability: “So why do you think people eat meat when they know that they’re supporting things like denying the animals their every natural desire, mutilating animals and birds without pain relief, and slitting their throats open while they’re still fully conscious?” Note: Really—wait for an answer. It can be uncomfortable, but fight the urge to fill in the silence. There is real power in making people answer this question.

This is why Socrates was killed: He didn’t only lecture about truth in a way that people could ignore him. He forced people to confront truth by challenging them to come up with the answers themselves.

Second: People feel heard by me, so they return the courtesy by listening
Everyone prefers to have a conversation with someone who asks us questions and listens to our answers than with someone who just talks and talks and talks; and yet many of us, when asked a question about animal rights or vegetarianism, answer it with a monologue. We are so moved by the suffering of animals, so thrilled that the other person has asked a question, that away we go, forgetting the first rule of effective communication: it must be a two-way street.

Lecturing at, instead of listening to people causes them to be less interested in what we have to say, for the simple reason that they will be less likely to like us and enjoy our conversation. Think about the people you like and enjoy the most, even outside your closest friends. Inevitably, they’re the people who are interested in you—they ask you questions and somehow let you know that they’re listening to what you have to say. Conversely, the people you can’t stand are probably the ones who have no sense of space, who are socially challenged, who just like to hear themselves talk. Which group should we emulate?

Third: You’ll be more effective if you know what you’re up against

Beyond the simple fact that it’s rude, socially inept, and alienating to talk at people rather than with them, launching into a diatribe in response to a question guarantees that you’ll be less effective in answering the other person’s concerns, as you’ll have no idea what those concerns are. Instead, pepper the discussion with questions so you can steer the discussion in the proper direction rather than racing forward without checking the terrain ahead.

For example, if you ask “Do you oppose cruelty to animals?”, how you proceed will vary radically if the person you’re speaking with replies with “I give money to my local SPCA,” as opposed to “I don’t really see it as a primary concern.” Quite simply, you need to know who you’re talking with if you want to be as effective as possible.

Americans are kind: 96 percent want to see animals protected from abuse, and a May 2003 Gallup poll found that fully 25 percent feel that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Of course, that’s dogs and cats they’re talking about, rather than farmed animals. But it shows a strong base of compassion among the American people—for the animals they know, they are compassionate. It’s our job to be the ambassador for the animals whom they don’t know, and to be as effective as possible.

Nothing that anyone can say will refute our fundamental message: “We don’t need to eat meat to be healthy, so eating meat causes animals to suffer unnecessarily.” Whether it’s “The Bible says we can do it” or “What about abortion?” or “What about plants?”, just keep bringing the discussion back to the simple, undeniable fact of unnecessary suffering—but do it in a way that is conversational, not confrontational. I’m sure the animals would thank you if they could.

Bruce Friedrich is Director of Vegan Campaigns for PETA. For a longer discussion of having effective conversations, including a section on dealing with the most popular questions, please see “Effective Advocacy: Stealing from the Corporate Playbook,” which you can find quickly by Googling “Effective Advocacy.”



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