by Cassandra Scheffman
Editor’s Note: One of the most challenging aspects of being a humane educator or activist is engaging with people about challenging issues in ways that inspire and invite, rather than in ways that make them feel judged and defensive.
The issue of engaging with others is often a hot topic for our graduate students. When IHE grad Cassandra Scheffman was a student, she posted a terrific response about communicating with compassion and acceptance. We’d like to share it here:
In my experience, I have learned that I am most successful reaching people when I try to refrain from being judgmental and critical and instead reach out with all the compassion and empathy I can muster.
When we act accusatory and self-righteous we only cause others to put up their defenses and potentially regard the ideals we are trying to promote in an increasingly negative light. This is certainly much easier said than done, especially when we are dealing with particularly heart-wrenching and devastating issues, which are all too common in humane education work.
I think that when we direct anger and blame toward others who may not agree with us and are thereby directly or indirectly sustaining the problem, this is not only our impulsive way of trying to correct the problem for its own sake, but a reflection of personal resentment for the suffering we endure as a result of these emotionally charged issues.
Negativity breeds negativity, and by reacting to each other in this way, we only intensify and exacerbate our differences. Odds are this will not lead to solutions.
I try as hard as I can to remind myself that we all have different backgrounds and life experiences that have led us to act in certain ways.
Often times, asking questions instead of voicing opinions can be effective in helping lead others to new attitudes and ways of thinking. If we tell others what is “right” (that they are wrong) and what they should feel and do, they will surely resist us.
But if we can creatively engage them by taking a sincere interest in their viewpoints, asking questions that help us understand why they have come to the conclusions they have or do what they do, and then challenge them through questions that push them to really think about and reconsider these views, their actions and opinions may evolve based on their own evaluations. (All too often, people just haven’t taken the time to carefully consider just why it is they feel one way or another or do one thing or another.)
A conversation that is mutually respectful has much greater potential.
We can try to set the path for such a conversation simply by offering respect and kindness at the onset. As humane educators, this may also create an opportunity to offer relevant facts and information that, under less threatening circumstances, have a much greater chance to be actually received. You may also find that people are more inclined to ask you questions and seek additional information if they feel comfortable that they are not being judged.
I realize that this sounds idealistic and that there will be certain times in which we just can’t reach people or we are met with hostility regardless of how we present ourselves.
For me, I try to use these strategies as guidelines and overall have had good results. Additionally, one of the best results is that I feel a great sense of liberation. Letting go (as much as possible) of tendencies to criticize and judge have helped me fill that space with more and more compassion, kindness, and empathy.
The more I have of these positive things, the more I have to spread around (and the less negativity I spread) – that’s how I look at it, and it has helped me feel much more fulfilled and effective as a person and humane educator.
I will wrap up with an example. Recently, our local news channel aired a story about a dog attack on a local woman.
This particular station has always jumped on any issues related to pit bulls, and even though they don’t admit it, and it’s quite subtle, they sway toward an anti-pit bull stance.
In response to this particular story and other dog attacks in Tucson over the last few years, they were presenting the question regarding whether Tucson should consider Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), as some other U.S. cities have. They interviewed an attorney who represents dog attack victims, who was a big supporter of BSL, and they neglected to interview anyone who could represent the “other side.” Then they opened this question up to debate on their Facebook page for all to comment, and you can only imagine how out of control that got.
I followed all of the Facebook postings and felt tempted to throw in my two cents, but I realized it would do no good; I would not really be heard, and I would really only succeed in fueling an aggressive, anger-charged debate that had lost all rationality early on.
These were all people who were sticking to their guns and clinging ever closer to their particular side with each opposing opinion. I wanted to do something; silence would not help, either.
I decided to write a letter to the reporter and chose my words very carefully. I knew they were receiving a great deal of mail, so I wanted to be sure mine was worth paying attention to.
I started out by offering support and approval that they have considered pit bull and dog attack issues important topics to cover and thanked them for bringing the issues to the attention of the public. I deliberately tried to hide my own bias regarding the issue (the fact that I am a pit bull guardian, lover, defender) and instead focused on the importance of working to solve all the related problems — community safety, dog attacks, backyard breeding, selling of dogs, neglect and mistreatment of dogs, etc. — from a holistic perspective that values the well-being of people and dogs.
After citing some studies that indicate BSL doesn’t work, I looked at some approaches we can employ that address all of these concerns — not just the concerns of one side or the other. I also suggested resources, such as the Center for Disease Control and HSUS’s community dog bite prevention strategies and consulting, that might offer valuable tools for addressing the problem (instead of presenting my own opinions as a credible source).
I received a well thought out, helpful, appreciative letter, and the reporter acknowledged how nice it was to get some feedback that was proactive, respectful, and solution-oriented, along with a request to hear from me again: the goal I was hoping for.
I think that trying to build bridges this way can go a long way, and at the very least, it’s always worth a shot.
One last thing I will mention: It’s equally important to be compassionate and kind to yourself.
I have also struggled with being judgmental toward myself, thinking I am not doing enough or not setting the perfect example.
Likewise, this won’t get us anywhere either. We must treat ourselves with patience, kindness, and respect, and we will be all the better and stronger for it as we keep working to implement positive change.
Cassandra Scheffman is a graduate of IHE’s M.Ed. program. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family, and works as the associate director of adult programs at the First Unitarian Church.