The Importance of Listening in Animal Advocacy
Casey Taft, Ph.D.
Animal advocates are constantly hearing and reading about what messages we need to give, and for good reason: how we message can make a big difference in how others receive veganism. But what almost never gets discussed in animal advocacy is the importance of listening to others. I believe this to be a huge mistake.
In the field of communication – and in every field in which we are trying to help others change behavior – listening is the single most important factor. As a psychologist who helps those in conflictual relationships, listening skills is what I teach my clients first, before any other kind of communication. That is, we cover how to listen before how to get across a message. The better we are at listening to others, the more they will be likely to listen to our own message. Psychologists have also have been trained to focus on listening first and foremost because it’s so critical for helping others change.
Having the proper mindset for listening is what’s most important. This means to really focus on where the other person is coming from rather than trying to get your own point across. It can involve paraphrasing what they’re saying to make sure that you get it right, asking open-ended questions to learn more, and showing that you can understand why they might feel a certain way (even if you don’t necessarily agree). If the other person really feels like you’re making an effort to hear them, they will most likely hear you out as well.
So why is it so hard to listen to others? What gets in the way? It seems to be a natural tendency among people to rigidly think of things only from their own point of view, and to want to convince others that we are right. I believe that we will be far more effective and inclusive as a movement if we commit to seeing beyond ourselves and recognizing that others have experiences and struggles that we are not even aware of and can’t fully understand, because we are not them.
I recently saw an example of this phenomenon in a discussion about whether going vegan was “easy” or “hard.” It was in response to an article discussing how, for some people who live in food deserts with little or no access to fruits and vegetables, who struggle with poverty and trying to feed their kids, or who may be exposed to violence and trauma on a daily basis, going vegan may feel difficult for them. Most of the responses to this article were extremely hostile, with the author accused of “making excuses” and with the common refrain of “veganism is easy.” Well, no – veganism isn’t easy for everyone; all we have to do is ask others who have struggled with it for us to understand their perspective. Of course, we should still be promoting veganism with those for whom going vegan feels hard, but validating their feelings is perhaps the most critical step in joining with them to work towards a vegan goal.
We as advocates need to focus less on trying to be “right” all of the time and more on trying to understand and reach other people. We should not allow our advocacy to serve as a platform to feed our own egos, with showing others how intelligent and right we are taking precedence over building understanding and promoting change. We all have our own experiences that we bring to the table, and the more we can learn about and from others, the better we will be able to work with them towards our goal of achieving a vegan world.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence and abuse prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports. He has authored the recently released Motivational Methods for Animal Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective and Trauma-Informed Treatment and Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence, published by the American Psychological Association.