As advocates for animals, we want to reach people with our message of compassion for animals and help others make compassionate choices. We have many opportunities to engage in online discussion, but the conversations can be fraught with conflict, misunderstanding, and pain. However, we can do things differently.
The first thing to remember is that online discussions are not the best way to communicate. If you can talk about animals with other people face-to-face, then do so. Be proactive in starting those conversations, whether at an outreach table or by sharing vegan food with friends. When online discussions start and you find that people are interested in discussing the topic further, invite them to have a face-to-face discussion. In-person discussion allows for nonverbal communication, including gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, all of which can increase empathy and understanding.
Sometimes it’s impractical to speak in person, and online discussions are the only opportunity to discuss issues. For those circumstances, here are 10 tips:
- There’s generally no need to respond right away. Give yourself time.
- Stop and breathe. Find peace in yourself before responding.
- Treat each person as an individual with their own needs, desires, and autonomy. You are much more likely to understand their perspective and also have them understand you.
- Listen to the other person. Start your comment or message by paraphrasing to show that you understand. Ask sincere questions to understand their perspective better.
- Show respect. Avoid sarcasm and condescension.
- Model open-mindedness. When people see that you’re listening and trying to understand, they are more likely to do the same.
- Since empathy works best in person, accommodate for the medium. When you communicate, imagine your words being interpreted in the worst light and then edit your comment to help the other person understand your perspective. And on the flip side, interpret their words in the best possible light.
- Speak from your own perspective. Don’t claim that your views are universal. And…
- When providing factual claims, cite sources that most people are likely to agree are reliable (e.g. industry or academic sources).
- Build bridges. Use the debates as an opportunity to find shared values and common interest that will keep the discussion going.
In public or group discussions, most readers (especially those who are undecided) never comment at all. This means that the people you’re most likely to influence are not the people who are commenting, and those people are more likely to listen to you and agree with you if you are respectful and seek to learn the truth.
None of this is to downplay the real anger we may feel about animal cruelty or the frustration we may feel when those we care about are engaging in animal abuse. Those feelings are real, yet acting them out is not helpful. Cool down and respond with compassion and goodwill for both the animals and your audience.