Rhetoric and advocacy: the value of a different approach

UPDATE: Changed the title from “the value of the right approach” to “the value of a different approach” – thanks to Aaron for the nudge!

I was thinking about how to respond to this. I found myself wanting to share rhetoric tips, so I’m posting this as a blog entry instead of a comment. =)

On my post about the Manila Zoo, Anna commented: “Don’t you love animals? Then why are you eating them? What’s the difference between the animal that you ‘love’ and the animal that is on your plate? If you really love them, you’ll stop having them for dinner.”

One of the benefits of learning about rhetoric and argument is being able to recognize what’s going on. Here, Anna tries to set up a dichotomy: either you love animals and are vegan, or you eat animals and don’t love them. Relying on such a premise weakens Anna’s case. I don’t have to accept this premise, and I can see other choices.

This looks like an inarguable situation: she’s not going to convince me to adopt a vegan diet through these words, and I’m probably not going to convince her to be more precise and more compassionate in her rhetoric. But I’d like to explore this anyway, because there’s something interesting here about the difference between what she’s trying and how I’d do it. (When life gives you lemons, write a reflective blog post about them!) If I were in Anna’s shoes and I wanted to nudge someone to move towards a more plant-based diet, here’s what I would try.

You can very rarely make someone do something. If you want to influence someone’s behaviour, you have a much better chance if you can inspire them rather than if you criticize them or force them. Part of that is building a bridge between the two of you so that the other person can understand and listen to you, and part of that is helping the other person imagine how much better their life would be with your proposal.

I know that can sound frustrating and slow. There have been many times I wished I could just wave a magic wand (or write a program!) to get people to change their behaviour, understand a new concept, or stop e-mailing huge files around. But in all the books I’ve read and through all the coaching I’ve done, I keep coming back to these lessons again and again: you can’t change people’s minds for them, and influencing cooperation can be much easier than sparking conflict.

So I would start by building common ground, instead of approaching it antagonistically. This is a common mistake for radicals, influencers, and people carried away by their passions. Goodness knows I’ve got enough examples of doing this myself in the early years of my blog. When you get stuck in an “us versus them” mindset, it becomes difficult to connect with people in a compassionate, respectful manner. Instead of trying to imply that the person I’m talking to hates animals or is hypocritical, I’d probably start off by highlighting things we have in common. Something like this: “I’m happy to see you love animals a lot.” This validates what the other person has said, affirms them, and starts off on a positive note.

Then I would use personal experiences as a bridge, showing people I’ve been where they are and they can relate to me. If you want to make it easier for people to see what you see, you need to show them that you’ve stood where they stand, acknowledging challenges along the way. That way, you can connect with people and help them be inspired. In this hypothetical argument, it might be something like “I love animals too, which is why I’ve been shifting to an all-plant diet. It’s sometimes hard to stick with it, particularly when I’m hanging out with friends, but it’s easier when I remember the troubles animals go through and the kind of world I’d rather build for them.”

I’d soften the call to action. People don’t like being manipulated by false dichotomies or preachy advice. I would probably explore the waters with a question like, “Have you thought about shifting to a vegetarian or vegan diet, too?” By backing off a little, I acknowledge the other person’s choices and reasons instead of trying to make decisions for them.

Depending on whether I thought it was necessary, I might include some social proof or alternative reasons. For example, plant-based diets can be healthier and less expensive than diets with a lot of meat. They can have a smaller environmental footprint, too. It’s good to anticipate and acknowledge the difficulties. Growing plants isn’t automatically guilt-free: see the clearing of land to support commercial agriculture; the dangers of monoculture, fertilizers, and pesticides; the consequences of transportation.

I’d end by showing my respect for people’s choices and finishing on a positive note. This would be a good place to thank the person again and highlight common ground, remembering that the goal isn’t to score points, but to open up a possible conversation enriched by personal experience. 


So here’s what that might look like, if I wanted to influence someone to eat more vegetables and fewer animals.

Before: “Don’t you love animals? Then why are you eating them? What’s the difference between the animal that you ‘love’ and the animal that is on your plate? If you really love them, you’ll stop having them for dinner.”

After: “I’m happy to see you love animals a lot. I love animals too, which is why I’ve been shifting to an all-plant diet. It’s sometimes hard to stick with it, particularly when I’m hanging out with friends, but it’s easier when I remember the troubles animals go through and the kind of world I’d rather build for them. Have you thought about shifting to a mostly-vegetable, vegetarian, or vegan diet, too? I’ve found that it usually comes out cheaper than my old meals, and I feel healthier and more energetic too. Hope to hear from you soon!”

Your mileage may vary, of course. You might feel that this more compassionate I’m-on-your-side approach is too mild for you. I present it as an alternative, so it’s easier to see that not all advocacy has to be confrontational.

Having reframed the comment in a more positive tone, what would be my personal response to it? I’m aware of the arguments for and against vegetarianism and vegan diets. I do eat mostly vegetables, thanks in part to a community-supported agriculture program that keeps me busy figuring out what to do with zucchini, in part to concern over what goes into the food that goes into us, and in part to a stubborn frugality that dislikes paying the premium for steak. I don’t think I’ll ever follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, though, because I don’t like inconveniencing friends and family, or proselytizing at the kitchen table. I’ll follow my own decisions when it comes to food I can control, but I’ll try to go with the flow when it comes to what people share with me. (I still opt out of balut and other things that make my mind boggle, although many people consider such things delicacies.) So even this tweaked message isn’t going to make my decisions for me, but it will leave me with more respect than aversion to how people try to get their messages across.

Parting thoughts: If you come to a conversation prepared for a fight, that’s what you’ll get. If you come to a conversation with love and compassion, you’ll have more opportunities to learn and grow. It’s amazing how much of a difference your starting point can make. It takes practice to be able to consider different approaches and choose one that fits, and, if necessary, to translate what other people say into what they might have meant. Hope to help more people think about and consciously choose how to approach conversations!

  • Doug

    Thanks for an interesting post. Since I mostly agree I wasn’t going to comment, but I found the “proselytizing at the kitchen table” comment a bit curious. If you just happen to serve a fully vegetarian meal, how is that prozelytizing? Seems as if you just did it without calling attention to it, it’d be just ‘a meal’? Not sure what you’re referring to…

  • Aaron

    There is no right or wrong approach. There are a lot of approaches and they all influence us whether we consider them wrong and overly antagonistic or right because they’re compassionate.

    For instance, sometimes we need to ask people for respect and sometimes you need to say, “I’m fed up and can’t take it anymore.” The opportunities for growth and love come in many different shapes and sizes

    • Great point, Aaron! I’ve changed the title from “the value of the right approach” to “the value of a different approach.” Thanks for keeping me honest!

  • I have successfully sneaked in vegetables at the dinner table. (And the breakfast table – zucchini requires creativity.) What I’m averse to is the stereotypical “Oh, you eat meat, you’re a BAD PERSON” attitude. Ditto for many other things that people become evangelical about – religion, politics, operating systems, editors, and so on. I’m happy to let people have avid discussions at my tea get-togethers as long as they can agree or disagree respectfully. (Also, I like bacon, so adopting a holier-than-thou attitude is internally inconsistent. ;) )

    I try to avoid that attitude myself, tending more towards the “Thanks for sending that file! Have you thought about using Lotus Connections inside IBM to make it easy to send files and updates to lots of people?” rather than “Oh, you send files by e-mail, you’re a BAD PERSON.”
    (Not that I’m equating vegan philosophy with collaboration here. I just find it useful to illustrate the situation with examples from personal experience.) I tend towards “I happen to really like Emacs!” rather than “You use vi. You suck.” (You can do really cool things with vi, too.) This is also why I’m deliberately responding to that kind of comment with “Here’s how you can argue that more effectively” rather than “Your logic is sloppy. You suck.” =)

  • Doug

    Not disputing the attitude issue, but not what I was trying to ask about.
    The idea that lack of meat has to be justified is what seems to be the underlying issue.
    So if a meal just happens to have no meat, that provokes ?? by the meat expecting/entitled?
    Just trying to tease out what is considered normal/expected and how a meal with no meat presented without comment is proselytizing…

  • Ah, that makes it clearer. No, vegetarian/vegan meals aren’t usually remarkable/controversial by themselves. =)

    If you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, then it’s a good idea to make sure other people know about your dietary restrictions, like the way you’d tell friends what you’re allergic to before you go out to eat or before they prepare dinner. One of my friends is vegan, and I treat his dietary restrictions as like I treat allergies or religious restrictions – I make sure there’s always something there that everyone can enjoy, so people don’t feel like they have to sit in the corner eating their own food.

    Some people go overboard on this, not just telling people about their dietary preferences but also using it as a soapbox to tell other people what their dietary preferences should be. That’s when it becomes a source of conflict. I appreciate that people can feel quite passionate about it and may even want to “save” other people from their lifestyle choices, but that’s not an extreme I want to go to. There are perfectly reasonable people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets without becoming overbearing, of course, and my friend is a good example of that.

    The strangest thing is that there are some issues on which many people will try to change your mind. Food is one of them. Religion (or the lack of it) is another. Ah, well!

  • Doug

    Ok. I find it odd when you said “I don’t think I’ll ever follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, though, because I don’t like inconveniencing friends and family, or proselytizing at the kitchen table.” since it seems to imply that vegetarians/vegans are inherently proselytizers. I find that not true, and was wondering what was behind it. I’m not even sure how the lack of meat at a meal is a inconvenience. Perhaps I’m trying to unpack more than is there, but the meat-centric viewpoint it seems to hold is quite fascinating…

  • Actually, people can be unreasonable either way. Most people aren’t, thankfully, but it’s not unheard of for people who enjoy meat to pester or mock people who choose not to, just as it’s not unheard of for people who don’t to pester or mock people who do.

    It’s one of those situations where people might perceive your personal choices to be a criticism of theirs. I’ve had people react that way to something as seemingly straightforward as reflecting on my own teaching methods. I’ve also dealt with a lighter form of shaming from my sister, who used to tease me about being square because I don’t like alcohol. Easy enough to handle: rise above it. I can’t control other people’s reactions, but I can choose how I deal with my own decisions. So I’ll prefer to eat certain things, but I don’t feel the urge to raise that preference to the same level as an ethical, religious, or allergy-based restriction.

    I do let my personal choices influence the way I live and the social interactions I have with other people. =) For example, this is why I don’t hang out with friends in clubs, indulge in social retail therapy, or eat out on a regular basis. So it’s not that I’m running away from conflict, it’s that I’ve considered the different factors and decided that this particular decision isn’t something I’m going to stress out about for now.

    What would be a better way of phrasing that so that I can condense the explanations from this wonderful conversation into that statement?

  • Doug

    Thank you for the conversation and explanations.

    I”m not sure I understand the nuances, but I think I hear you saying that “if I simply have/serve meals with no meat, my family/friends will/may consider that to be a criticism to their choice to eat meat and that impression/awareness/etc. will create discord/strife/conflict” …?

    Perhaps “I choose not be vegetarian/vegan because in my social circles the absence of meat at meals (in and of itself, without pointing it out) creates conflict/stress/conversations/ that I would rather/choose to avoid.”

    I’m not sure about the self-(in)consistency thing, since I am guessing that you do buy things from time to time, or that you do eat out occasionally, and yet doing so does not invalidate your choices when choose not to? Wanting to eat meat, liking eating meat, doesn’t mean you have to choose to eat it. Nor does it mean that choosing not to eat it is a lie. It is a choice. I’m a part-time vegetarian, I choose to not eat meat whenever I can. But I don’t use any of the ‘veg’ labels anymore since so many people have baggage around those terms…

    At this point I suspect the issue maybe to nuanced for a simple sentence summary… :-)

  • It’s not so much what I serve or don’t serve. People don’t particularly care what’s in front of them, as long as it doesn’t give them food poisoning. ;) (Which is one of the reasons I serve mostly vegetable-based dishes, actually. =)

    It’s more about, say, when I’m in other people’s domains – going out with friends and family, or eating dinner at their place – that being strictly vegetarian or strictly vegan can lead to the occasional difficulty. For example, I’ve seen my friend have to deal with sorely lacking choices at restaurants, asking waitstaff to make sure the ingredients are all vegan-friendly, and sometimes have a hard time finding a nearby restaurant that accommodates everyone’s dietary restrictions while having more than a salad. I deal with that by making him pick the place if we’re meeting up outside, because he’s much more likely to know where he can get good stuff to eat. ;)

    Personally, I’m cool with eating (mostly) whatever’s handy, although I’ve recently discovered that being philosophically opposed to drinking pop, overpriced bottled water, or “vitamin-enriched water” is enough to get me slightly annoyed about the lack of a drinking fountain in Dufferin Mall when I forgot to bring a water bottle. (I ended up buying a can of coconut water from No Frills.)

    I choose to prefer what I eat, but not require it. As I’m fortunate enough to not have strong dietary restrictions yet, I’ll stay that way. =)

  • Also, if a friend is particularly proud of his Japanese-style ribs, I will totally go ahead and enjoy those ribs. =) If my husband roasts a chicken, I will eat the chicken. (He ate my experimental cucumber soup. I think I’ve got the easier end of this bargain.) If I’m planning to have friends over, I’m fine with putting together egg tarts and vegan biscuits – whatever I’m curious about sharing, as long as everyone’s got something to enjoy.

  • Doug

    Ok, well, none of that sounds like you’d proselytize at the kitchen table anyways. :-)
    Thanks for the explanations!