Empathy with Our Opposition: Persuading through Nonviolent Communication

Eva Hamer
September 25, 2023

This blog is the final one in a series meant to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

Part Six: when enemies appear

Part Seven: the movement needs a repair kit

Part Eight: What Anti-Vegan bias can teach us about allyship

The Gist:

  • Empathy as a Persuasive Tool: Rather than immediately countering the justifications people have for movement goals, try understanding the values behind their arguments. Empathizing with these values can create common ground, making them more receptive to alternate perspectives.
  • Empathetic Responses to Objections: The blog offers multiple examples of how to respond empathetically to common objections related to animal rights, aiming to understand and connect rather than immediately counterargue.
  • Empathy Beyond Animal Rights: The scope of empathy should extend beyond just animal-related issues. Demonstrated with examples, empathizing with concerns unrelated to the primary issue can help build a connection.
  • Post-Empathy Advocacy: Once people feel understood and valued, they are more likely to be receptive to new information and perspectives. After establishing empathy, we can introduce them to alternate viewpoints, ensuring a non-adversarial and constructive dialogue.
  • Empathy as a Powerful Change Agent: Our research suggests that Americans are more open to animal rights messages when they feel heard. By understanding the core values behind objections, advocates can foster meaningful discussions and drive positive change.

At Pax Fauna, we've undertaken extensive research to unearth best practices in messaging and develop resources for our movement's culture, tactics, and strategy. During this journey, one theme that emerged is the power of empathy. While we’ve written about this in our narrative reports, this blog will explore empathy as a tool for persuasion from a Nonviolent Communication lens. 

Empathy: A Vehicle for Transformation

A vital assumption in Nonviolent Communication is that every single action a person takes is their way of trying to meet a fundamental need. When we embrace this perspective, even when we vehemently disagree with someone's actions, we can still empathize and establish a connection. Dismissing individuals as fundamentally unreasonable or unlike us cuts off our ability to connect and in doing so, severs a potential path for transformation.

So, how do we start? It's tough to listen if you haven't been heard, and that's where a self-empathy practice like I’ve written about before comes in. Begin by connecting with your own feelings and needs before you turn your attention to others. Once you've done this self-work, you're better equipped to offer empathy to those who hold opposing views. A self-empathy practice can also be useful after a difficult conversation. 

Empathy as Persuasion

When we encounter common rationalizations from the public, such as culture, tradition, or natural arguments for consuming animal products, it's tempting to dismiss these as misguided. However, empathy can be an important strategy for overcoming defensiveness and opening up lines of communication.

Instead of immediately diving into a rebuttal, try asking questions that help you understand the values underpinning their objections. There's a good chance you'll find values you share. Affirming the importance of these values can demonstrate that we are regular citizens who stand on common ground. And sometimes, giving empathy for the underlying values can lead individuals to question their own rationalizations.

Turning Objections into Openings

You may have encountered a lot of advice about how to counter objections to animal rights. This advice often includes impressive statistics and talking points that are sure to stump the average meat eater. However, I’d like to offer some skepticism about whether counterarguing, alone, is the most effective way to create change.

Our research found that when study participants were given empathy for their objections—even without offering any counterarguments—they shifted quite strongly in the direction of the movement’s goals.

For example, one participant argued that eating meat was important to culture. After being shown empathy for this concern, that same participant said, “Animals need somebody to stand up and say, "This isn't right." And we have other alternatives now. Now similar to the child labor movement… it was easy to use children to do labor, it's easy to use animals for food, but is either one really right?”

Let's explore some common objections and what empathy might sound like in response. 

Objection: I don't know if plant-based options are actually that healthy. I tried going vegetarian once and felt weak.

Response: It sounds like you want to be sure that you and others can be healthy and well-nourished. Is that it?

Objection: Animal agriculture is big in Colorado. It's been a way of life for generations of farmers. And what about the workers employed in slaughterhouses or fur shops?

Response: Of course, I hear the concern about all the people who have depended on these industries for their livelihoods for generations. It sounds like you really want everyone to have a safe, fulfilling job, am I getting it?

Objection: Whether I eat meat or wear fur is my personal choice that no one should interfere with. I'm not stopping anyone from going animal-free, so how is it fair for you to tell me I have to?

Response: I can tell how important that sense of personal choice is. Of course, you don’t want anyone telling you what to buy, wear, or eat. Am I hearing your concern?

Objection: I was raised on meat or farming/hunting animals. Meat and fur are important to cultural traditions, including those of my family or of immigrant or Indigenous communities. They're necessary in some places.

Response: Definitely, meat and fur have played a significant role in these traditions. It's often felt like there was no other choice for people to sustain themselves, stay warm, and uphold their customs. Am I understanding your perspective correctly?

Objection: Meat is an affordable source of nutrients. It tastes so good, and everyone around me is eating it. Animal-free diets are too expensive. Some people live in food deserts.

Response: We all need nutrition that tastes good and is affordable, right? You, or people you know, may have struggled to access quality food, and you’re worried about making those experiences worse?

These are only examples of what empathy might sound like in a few situations. The gist is to connect with what’s truly important for the person in front of you, and let them know you hear it (and, that you value that thing too!) 

Empathy For Other Objections

Animal advocates in the US have recently been taking to the streets for a different kind of outreach: advocating for pro-animal ballot initiatives. In these conversations, we encounter not only the above objections, but many more that have nothing to do with animals at all. When you have the time, try offering a line of empathy to these, too.

Objection: I don’t have time. I already donate to so many things, including my time, so I just don’t have time for one more thing. 

Response: I hear how spread thin you feel. You’re contributing to so many things. 

Objection: There are too many things on the ballot. I don’t trust the electorate. Politicians need to do their jobs. 

Response: Of course, wouldn’t it be great if we could trust politicians to pass the laws we need?

Objection: You’re wasting your time. This will never pass. 

Response: I hear the shock that we would even ask for this. 

After Empathy, Advocate

Once we’ve expressed that we’re listening and understand where someone is coming from, our messages are much more likely to persuade. This will help us avoid an adversarial dynamic where each side is trying to win over the other, and instead allow a collaborative conversation where shifting an opinion doesn’t require giving up dignity. 

For more advice about where to go next in these conversations, check out the FAQ page on the Pro-Animal Future website. And be sure to stay tuned for more detailed guidance as we enter into Phase 2 of the slaughterhouse and fur ban campaigns in Denver. 

Incorporating empathetic questioning into our advocacy efforts can be truly transformative. Our research suggests that Americans become more open to our message after receiving empathy for their objections. By understanding and connecting with the values that underpin these objections, we can foster meaningful dialogue and, ultimately, create positive change.

So let's remember that empathy is not a sign of weakness but a powerful tool for transformation. For more insights on persuasion and our research, visit narrative.paxfauna.org.

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