Discussions around optimal nutrition and healthy living continue to be at the forefront of our culture and, despite the smorgasbord of niches to choose from, the end goal of all the different movements is the same: to help others improve their health and better their lives. For instance, vegans are helping to shift the world in a more benevolent, ethical, and sustainable direction, during a time when it has arguably never been more relevant or important. Paleo advocates are helping to reconnect people with the primal, pre-agricultural, way of eating, removing excessively processed and industrialized foods. The "all foods fit" crowd aims to teach intuitive eating, combat calorie and body obsession, and cultivate a more balanced relationship between consumers and food. All of these approaches, though contrasting in many ways, are focused on helping people live their best lives in one way or another.
However, as with many causes, those of us who embrace the role of helping others improve their health are sometimes met with friction in the form of societal pressures and stereotypes, long-standing cultural norms and traditions, differing opinions, or other personal obstacles.
As a vegan, people often ask me how to handle health-related conversations with others when the subject matter becomes challenging, and I’ve found a lot of guidance in Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written in 1937, the messages still ring true and can be applied to encourage health empowerment in a constructive way.
1. Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
Remember that we’re all human. We are creatures of emotion, and our response to criticism is often defensiveness rather than an immediate openness to change. Every conversation should be conducted with inclusion, rather than condemnation, in mind. Converse on an even playing field. Save your activist persona for activism events and your clinical lecturer persona for clinical lectures.
2. Arouse in the other person an eager want.
Figure out how to combine your desire to lead others toward a certain lifestyle with things they want, thereby creating a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Take, for example, a friend who wants to live more sustainably and minimize his carbon footprint. He already recycles and bikes to work instead of driving, but he still wants to do more for the planet. This would be a great opportunity to suggest ways that he can make his diet more sustainable, by reducing his consumption of animal products, and helping him understand the connection to his personal lifestyle goals. You get to spread the word about the environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle, and he gets to reduce his carbon footprint. Win-win.
3. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
Health advocacy is not about tirelessly debating the historical diets of cave men or what temperature is best to cook (or not cook) food at for improving digestion. It’s about reflecting your core values in your daily choices and being a role model and educated resource for others who look to you for insightful advice. Arguing does nothing but waste time and energy, especially if it is with someone who is not ready to make a change. In these cases, simply call it a "difference of opinion" and perhaps save your words for others more receptive to the discussion.
4. Be a good listener.
Encourage others to talk about themselves. Vegans love to tell people about why they became vegan or the issues that are important to them, but remember that everyone has a valuable story. Find common ground by listening to theirs, and you could be the one who helps them write their story. Make an effort to better understand the person on the other end of your conversation and listen to what they are saying instead of preparing for your turn to speak.
5. Try to honestly see things from the other person's point of view.
Fact: most of us were not born eating the way we choose to eat today. Often, we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to a certain extent because we’ve been there. It's silly to act as if we're superior to others when we share common experiences and can learn from one another’s point of view. The more relatable you are to the person you are speaking with, the more likely they are to be moved by what you have to say.
6. Appeal to the nobler motives.
Vegans believe that their dietary choices are reflective of morally right choices, but it’s important to acknowledge similar characteristics in the person with whom you are speaking. What are their noble motives? Is it that they feed their family a certain way because they believe it is the best way to nourish their children? If we can acknowledge this, we are more likely to be able to show them that veganism is an awesome way not only to nourish our families but also to empower our kids to participate in positive causes like animal advocacy and environmental stewardship.
7. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
None of us particularly like being told what to do. Instead, make suggestions in the form of questions and guide the other person to come up with a decision on their own. For instance, "Have you ever considered incorporating green smoothies into your weekly routine? I’ve got some great recipes my kids love that I would be happy to share."
8. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.
Try to figure out what the other person really wants, and come up with a way to make them excited about giving your suggested lifestyle change a shot. Help them to identify what their core values are (i.e., balance, mindfulness, ethically sourced products), and offer suggestions about how the lifestyle change matches those things. For example, animal lovers may not be aware of the true indications behind certain humane food labels and would be excited about the idea of reducing their consumption of animal products to advocate for animal welfare in a new and different way.
Oh, and one more thing: Have faith in your unique ability to make a widespread impact. Simply by standing for something, being a positive role model, and advocating for what you believe in you are creating ripples in the lives of those around you. No matter what your niche is, you can empower others to take the reins of their health and make drastic improvements through effective communication. As Steve Jobs said, "Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do."
Thinking about going vegan? It's important to do your research. Check out the environmental impact of going vegan for just one day and four honest mistake vegans make when it comes to their health.