**This post is by contributor Anne Piotrowski
Most people go their entire lives without ever considering veganism as a viable option. I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out how to change this fact and, like many before me, I’ve run into a few hurdles. As a vegan advocate, I run tables at fairs where I invite people to engage in a friendly conversation about veganism. Here’s what I’ve learned and how my practice has changed as a result.
- No one wants me telling them what to do.
At the beginning, I was so full of passion and information and I just wanted everyone to see what I had discovered. It was obnoxious. There, I said it. My enthusiasm was as off-putting as it was well-meaning. Through contemplation and meditation, I remembered the value of letting go of the outcome. I’m not here to pressure others to do what I believe is right if for no other reason than it’s not effective. People sense pressure and they shut me out and move on. I see my role as a resource of accurate information and a support to those struggling with the emotional fallout of going vegan.
- Listen first and listen well
When I was newly vegan and later when I started to officially advocate for veganism, I was eager to share my “expertise”. I had read all the books and watched all the documentaries. I learned about plant-based nutrition and cooking, the impact of animal agriculture on our planet and, of course, the abuse and slaughter of billions of animals. This was and remains important knowledge I’m still happy to share with anyone who asks but I was missing a critical element that left my advocacy feeling flat, without dimension. I wasn’t making a true connection. My professional background is in counseling so I should have known better. I should have known that helping anyone to consider making meaningful change begins with connection. The best way I know how to make a connection is to truly listen. Now, instead of formulating my oh-so-brilliant response while someone is talking, I remain present and focused. I get to know the person in front of me and I let that person know that what s/he has to say matters, even if ultimately I see things differently.
- Remember when changing seemed out of reach
Like most vegan adults, I was not always vegan. I became vegan in my forties and for most of my life before then, veganism didn’t seem like an option. For my first twenty or so years, I didn’t even think of it. Later, I thought of it and decided to go vegetarian, not yet seeing what was wrong with milk and eggs. Finally, I learned what I needed to learn at the time I could hear it and I became vegan. Some might refer to this as my “vegan journey” but that makes it sound nice and it wasn’t really. I willfully ignored information because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to be different than my family members, my friends. I wanted to continue to fit in, feel welcome at dinner parties, feel normal everywhere. As I look back, I can remember what I now refer to as “priming experiences”, those moments where the truth was right there in front of me and I turned away. I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed either. Remembering all of this helps me to access the empathy I believe is critical to successful vegan advocacy. When someone shares with me the reasons they don’t want to or can’t go vegan, I can relate and I don’t need to judge. Instead of saying, “here’s why you’re wrong,” I can honestly say, “I get it,” and we can move on from that point.
Stay true to the message
My years as a counselor and now as a vegan advocate have taught me that I can feel closely connected with people even when we deeply disagree on something important. As you might imagine, this is so much easier to say than it is to practice. It’s tempting sometimes to walk away from the conversation on the high note of common ground but that would be insufficient. Vegan advocacy is not counseling and it demands that I share a message that the stakes are too high to ignore. Listening first is important to me so that I can understand and connect with another person in a meaningful way but then the time comes for me to share what I believe to be true which often means gently challenging another person’s view. If I’ve done my part and properly conveyed my genuine and unconditional positive regard, then even in a few minutes, our bond will be strong enough to handle disagreement. Compassionate disagreement is a skill. It can be learned, practiced and mastered but this takes attention and time. Most of us did not grow up with great models for this style of communication but this work is important and entirely worth it.
If you’re vegan, I hope this post gives you some ideas to help your advocacy or your next conversation at a family gathering. If you’re not vegan but curious, well, I’m here for you too. Ask away so we can talk about the important stuff, even when we disagree about something important.
**This post is by contributor Anne Piotrowski
Anne Piotrowski is the founder of Conversations with a Friendly Vegan, a vegan advocacy approach with no judgment, no agenda, just a heartfelt conversation to help people explore any and all aspects of veganism. Anne has a master’s degree in counseling which she practiced in NJ before becoming a mom and vegan advocate in Bucks County, PA. She can be reached at email@example.com