3 Pathways to Compassionate Conversation

Friends meeting up at CAA's Vegan Thanksgiving Potluck

Going vegan or vegetarian and feeling stressed out about how to talk with friends and family about it? How do you share your plant-based journey in a way that feels good?

We’ve got some ideas for you. These general principles for compassionate communication were shared last fall when we were getting ready for the holidays. We were anticipating some of the awkward conversations that can happen around the family dinner table with our omnivorous peeps.

Now, during Twin Cities VegWeek, we’re sharing them again, hoping they inspire everyone who’s taking the Twin Cities VegPledge to consider how they can gracefully communicate with friends and family while they’re exploring a new way of eating.

Bottom line: If you don’t eat animals, that’s gonna set you apart from a lot of other people. And sometimes that’s a bummer.

Will you be asked why you don’t eat animals? Or where you get my protein? Or what you would eat if you were stranded on a desert island and your only choice would be to kill an animal or die? Probably.

Here are some savvy responses to those annoying questions, but be warned…memorizing the answers to those FAQs may not be what’s gonna lead to the most compassionate conversation.

Here’s a list of three general approaches that feel empowering to me. You can think of them as potential pathways to compassionate conversation. All situations are different, so you can adapt these to the circumstances in a way that feels right.

1. Choose your own adventure.

You could use this interaction as an opportunity to speak out for animals, or you could put that intention aside, especially if you think it could keep you from connecting with your loved ones and nurturing your relationships.

And if you are making those personal connections and the subject of what you eat (or don’t eat) comes up, then you’re arriving at the conversation from a more openhearted place, and that’s going to improve the chances for mutual understanding.

But even if the subject of your veganism doesn’t come up in conversation, rest assured that just by being you, eating your vegan food, you are going to have an impact. They are going to notice and think about their food choices.

Ultimately, you don’t have to feel compelled by anything but your own intention. How do you want to spend your time?

2. Engage in openhearted conversation.

If something on the subject of eating animals does come up, practice effective communication. Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Listen at least as much as you are speaking.
  2. Ask questions. Be genuinely curious about who they are and what they think.
  3. Respect the person in front of you, even if you don’t agree with them. You have some core values in common. Bring the conversation back to that common ground to keep the connection.
  4. Let go of expectations. Rather than having an agenda for the conversation, just think of it as an opportunity for sharing and learning about one another.

And remember that you don’t have to know it all. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Really, just say what’s true for you and speak from your own experience.

Also, you can always choose to bow out of the conversation or to postpone it for a later date. Remember that the dinner table is not always the best place to talk about what’s happening on factory farms, as people will likely be more defensive when they are eating animals. Suggest that you can talk about it more later.

If they show genuine interest in why you’re vegan, that’s surely a conversation worth having. But if they show no interest or worse yet just want to push your buttons, then you’re probably better off saving your energy for someone else, which brings me to the last point.

3. Use your energy strategically.

There’s probably a reason that I’ve been vegan fifteen years and none my family has yet gone vegan. And it’s not that I’m a bad animal advocate. I certainly have influenced at least a few friends and some strangers, but not family.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m guessing this has something to do with the complicated relationships with our loved ones. At this point, I’m aware of this dynamic, and so I put my energy where I think it will most likely yield results.

Consider logging onto exploreveg.org and signing up for a volunteer shift at an upcoming outreach event. Channel the energy there. CAA and many organizations like it offer numerous opportunities to take action for animals. What’s more, the audiences they reach tend to be genuinely interested, and they’re not your family. To them, you’re just a friendly and passionate advocate for the animals. And they get to leave the conversation feeling informed, inspired, and empowered.


If it feels helpful to you to memorize some responses to the frequently asked questions, then go for it. Ultimately however, effective communication requires more nuance than that. It means being present, listening, being unconditionally compassionate. There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all response for every situation.

In my experience, I find a slightly laid-back attitude with loved ones to be most effective. It’s the lead-by-example approach. (I also call it the sneaky vegan approach.)

Activism is work, and sometimes we do need to refresh ourselves so that we can return to that work with renewed energy. You get to put your passion for helping animals to use in whatever way you think will be most effective, and you can even choose to take a break from speaking out if you feel like you need one.

I look for ways that my activism can be sustainable and effective, and for me these approaches help me to feel that’s possible. I hope they feel helpful to you too.

 

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