path lined with lightbulbs
Image courtesy Discovery Education/Flickr.

by Marsha Rakestraw

As humane educators, we’re passionate about creating a better world for people, animals, and the earth. And when we’re so focused on inspiring others to open their minds and hearts to new ideas in order to create a world full of compassion, justice and peace, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that, because we have good intentions, the methods we use for teaching or for sharing information are valid, and that people will take away from the encounter what we want them to.

But as advocate Matt Ball said,  “No matter how angry we are, how much we believe in something, how hard we work, or how much we suffer, our activities can be useless or even counter-productive.”

How can we help other people want to open themselves to new ideas for humane living in a way that is inviting, effective, and meaningful? Here are 8 strategies to help.

1.  Help them pay attention to their authentic selves. In the fog of culture we can easily forget who we are and what we value. As humane educators we can remind people to ask themselves: Who do I really want to be? What kind of world do I want to live in? What can I do to help that world become reality? If the impetus for positive change begins with their own deepest values, then people are much more likely to want to develop a way of life that does more good and less harm for all.

2.  Show them the power of these new ideas. We can help people connect with how these new ideas:

  • can help them create positive change that serves themselves, other people, animals and the earth.
  • can free them from certain constraints (such as the false belief that satisfaction will be found in material goods or violence and exploitation).
  • can give them more control over their lives and what they choose to support.
  • can empower them to more consciously choose what they believe, rather than relying on others to tell them what’s true or not (such as mainstream media or those with specific agendas).
  • can encourage them to critically examine various beliefs, which will strengthen their own values, because they will know exactly why they believe what they do. It’s very empowering to be in tune with what we believe and why we believe it.

3.  Introduce the value of multiple perspectives. As Stephen Brookfield says in his book “Developing Critical Thinkers” it’s important for people to “gain awareness that others in the world have the same sense of certainty we do—but about ideas, values and actions that are completely contrary to our own.”

People raised in mainstream culture aren’t often inculcated with an understanding of and tolerance for other perspectives. There is only their perspective, and anything not in alignment with it is wrong (or not even on the radar). Helping people to live through others’ points of view (people, the earth, animals) can help them develop empathy and an understanding for what it must be like to be someone else.

4. Expose ourselves. As humane educators, sharing our own stories and biases and stressing the “Don’t take my word for it!” view can allow cultivating trust and openness. If we’re willing to be authentic with them, people are going to be more willing to be open with us.

5. Nurture, don’t push. People are also more apt to be open to new ideas if we awaken and nurture, rather than push. We have to be patient. We need to honor where people currently are on the humane continuum. People change when they’re ready. We can only bring awareness and encouragement, inspiration and empowerment. If people sense that we’re not trying to force them into believing or doing something, they’re more likely to be open. We also need to make sure we don’t overwhelm people with too much horror and destruction all at once—we should only give them what they can process and be sure to offer plenty of positive solutions.

6. Respect the context. It’s important to emphasize that to question the beliefs held by family, friends, government, etc., isn’t necessarily a criticism of the people or entities holding those beliefs. We can respect others and still disagree with their beliefs. Bringing respect to and an understanding of from whom people have acquired their beliefs will go a long way in alleviating discomfort about questioning those beliefs. We can point out that we can fight against a government policy with which we have come to disagree, but that doesn’t mean we hate/disrespect our government or country. This is where understanding the context for people’s beliefs can bring awareness.

7.  Help them explore and imagine alternatives. Helping others learn to use critical thinking to reflect, question and analyze is only part of the answer. By encouraging them to explore and imagine, we can help them focus on taking positive action, rather than dwelling on rage and pain and despair. “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it” may be a cliché, but it has merit.

8.  Model our message. One of the most powerful tools we have as humane educators is the reality of our own lives and the message we’re modeling with every choice we make. We can show people that, “Yes, it’s difficult learning about all the horrors and suffering and destruction, but we are examples that you can know about those things and DO something positive about them. You can change the world, find meaning and live a joyous life.”  We can show people how relatively easy it is to have your sustainably grown, fair trade, whole-grain humane cake and eat it, too.