I’ve been actively engaging my so-called opponents in the meat, dairy, and egg industries for 20 years. As president of the animal protection organization Mercy For Animals, I work to end factory farming and construct a compassionate plant-based food system.
In negotiations with those I once considered my enemies, everyone from Perdue Farms to small-scale poultry farmers, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But along the way, thankfully I’ve picked up some recurring lessons for changing the hearts and minds of even the most hostile stakeholders.
In distilling my lessons learned, there are five things anyone fighting for social change should know when negotiating with unlikely allies. To back up my advice, I spoke with Dr. Melanie Joy, a psychologist specializing in communication and social transformation and the author of Powerarchy: Understanding the Psychology of Oppression for Social Transformation. No matter your negotiation goal, these tactics should help.
See the Human Being Before You
The first and most important step in engaging so-called “enemies” is to know that you can get rid of tension and distrust with the simplest of tools: the power of human connection. Have empathy and recognize that the person you are talking to very likely has more in common with you than you’d expect. That way, you can find your commonalities and build from there.
“Most people share the same basic human needs—the need to feel connected, validated, seen and appreciated, and the need to feel like we matter,” Dr. Joy says. “Keeping that in our awareness as we’re communicating with others helps us to relate with the person as a being rather than getting stuck in the realm of ideas, where we can get lost in the debate and wanting to be ‘right.’”
It may sound intuitive, but one simple tactic makes all the difference: take the time to set an intention to see the human being before you when headed into a difficult conversation.
Help Identify Their Roadblocks
It’s possible the reason your opponent isn’t doing what you want them to is that they simply don’t know how.
For example, I find that most meat, egg, and dairy producers don’t believe animal agriculture is sustainable as a long-term business model. Many of them know well that while the meat business may be profitable right now, as plant-based meat becomes increasingly cost-competitive (and tasty!), carbon emissions get taxed, and the price of meat continues to rise, their industry will be forced to change. The messy business of housing, feeding, transporting, and slaughtering billions of animals each year eventually won’t make good business sense.
That’s why I ask my unlikely allies where their roadblocks are and collaborate to remove them if I can. Offering to help build solutions instead of simply pointing out what they’re doing wrong is much more psychologically effective. You’d be surprised how few negotiators actually approach their meetings with this as a top priority.
For example, a poultry farmer named Mike Weaver became fed up with raising chickens and realized the writing was on the wall. He worried about his impact on the climate and most of all, about keeping his farm and providing for his family. Once I was able to sympathize and understand his concerns, big things became possible.
Look for the Win-Win
Once you establish common ground and know what’s in it for them, it’s time to find solutions that benefit everyone. Building on the example I just mentioned with Mike, once that bridge was opened, we were able to work together and help him realize the work he was doing wasn’t all that different from growing hemp. Here was an environmentally friendly way to stay on his land and pay the bills without raising chickens in factory farms. It was the ultimate win-win and one that Mike and I could both get fully behind.
Now, instead of thinking about how I can put the meat industry out of business, I think about what producers care about most: their bottom line, shareholders, feeding people, paying their employees, and growing their businesses. I think about how we can inspire them to evolve into a different business, one that allows them to feed the world, but with plant-based products at the forefront and even better profits. Find common ground and look for ways to make change irresistible and your adversaries will willingly join you.
Stay Focused on Impact
This is where you set your pride aside. As you negotiate and debate, don’t get hung up on principles. Keep asking yourself: “Will this achieve my larger goal?” Keeping the big picture in mind is more important and effective than feeling like you’re winning or upholding smaller points, even if you believe strongly you’re right. If you can make small concessions that don’t hurt your end goal or the greater good, your negotiating partner will likely be more willing to compromise.
In fact, as Dr. Joy explains, the late social justice strategist Saul Alinsky pointed out how important it is to not “out” the other party as the bad guy, but to allow them to “save face” and make decisions that present them in a good light. Alinsky realized people are more likely to negotiate if they envision an outcome in which they appear to do something positive and powerful. That has certainly been my experience.
Let them feel like a hero—even like they’re winning—and you’ll likely get more of what you want in the end.
Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
Your opponent may have different values than you, but they often also hold the power to solve a problem you care about. In my case, I’m not in charge of any chickens; the farmers and big poultry companies are. If I want to convince them, I need to enter their space, understand their resistance, and really inspire them, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at first. Staying in our comfort zone and talking only to people who agree with us won’t get us to the solution.
I firmly believe that entering negotiations with these collaborative rather than adversarial attitudes is our greatest hope for moving forward. The path to social progress, whether it be ending factory farming, conquering systemic racism and sexism, or slowing climate change, is messy, uncomfortable, and difficult. It requires letting go of the concept of “us versus them” and accepting that there is only “us”—and an unjust system can best be corrected together.
Leah Garcés is the president of Mercy For Animals and author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry.