Nearly four centuries years ago, philosopher and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) condensed the art of persuasion to its core. He argued that the best way to change someone’s mind is to be empathetic. “We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us,” he wrote in his book Pensées (“Thoughts”). “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false.”

In other words, being powerfully persuasive begins by saying, “You’re right.”

Pascal’s persuasion premise has two fundamental steps:

  1. To convince someone they are wrong, you must first clarify where they are correct.
  2. Then, you should guide them to conclude on their own that their original opinion was wrong.

In an interview with Quartz, University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Arthur Markham says Pascal was spot on. “One of the first things you have to do to give someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and prevent them from digging their heels in to the position they already staked out,” he says. “If I immediately start to tell you all the ways in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to cooperate. But if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other party a reason to want to cooperate as part of the exchange. And that gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position in a way that allows cooperation.”

Blaise Pascal

Naturally, I wondered how this principle could be applied to animal activism. My first stumbling block was how does an activist tell someone who eats or otherwise exploits animals they are right? After some contemplation, I realized I was thinking of it the wrong way. I could never tell someone they were right for eating meat, for instance, but I could find common ground with them—like most people, I grew up eating animals—and I could agree that eating plays a central role in our culture. So, instead of haranguing someone for eating animals, I might approach them from an empathetic viewpoint in which I admit that I, too, enjoyed eating meat, dairy, and eggs for many years. (Finding common ground with people is a time-honored approach in one-on-one activism, but you’d be surprised how often advocates opt for scolding instead of conversations.)

Because people are more apt to change their minds when we affirm the value and truth in at least some of what they have to say, not when we attack their opinions and habits, I might guide the conversation toward discussing the importance of sharing meals, which clearly plays a significant role in our society and is another area where we can find common ground. As I wrote in A Vegan Ethic, “One of the principal reasons we cling to that habit of meat-eating is that it’s a group ritual filled with emotional potency—transporting us back to a wonderful childhood memory in Grandma’s kitchen, for example, barbecues with Dad, or enjoying a holiday meal in which a dead animal has always been the centerpiece.” Thus establishing some commonality with this person (i.e., I used to eat animals, too, and I completely understand the cultural significance of dining with others), I might mention that in addition to the social aspects, the pleasure of eating is about the taste and texture—at least for most people—and these can now be replicated with plant-based meats and the proper seasoning. (In this case, I would assume that someone wants the experience of eating “meat” before turning them onto whole foods.)

Now I can move on to the second step of Pascal’s premise and try to guide them to conclude that their own opinion was incorrect. One way to do this is to illustrate how eating animals is likely inconsistent with their values concerning animal welfare. Most people consider themselves compassionate, and they frankly don’t understand how their habit is in dramatic contrast to their benign self-image. For meat-eaters, getting to this point—overcoming their morally tormented psyches so they can devour the flesh of animals guilt-free—takes a bit of clever psychological maneuvering, including no small amount of cognitive dissonance, that inner mechanism that is constantly searching for ways to justify harmful or unethical behavior. No one wants to look like a hypocrite.

One justification an omnivore typically makes is that animals are not thinking, feeling beings, so getting killed for food means nothing to them. Trouble is, we are learning more about animals every day, and it’s quickly becoming apparent that the animals with whom we share this planet not only think and feel pain but dream, plan for the future, grieve the loss of loved ones, and share with us a host of other attributes we used to believe applied only to humans. There is emerging evidence to suggest that some animals may even have a sense of humor.

If someone knows animals have rich inner lives, would they be less likely to eat them? Maybe. But perhaps a more direct way to encourage them to make the connection between their latent values and what they put on their plates is companion animals. In conversations with meat-eaters who seem open to sincere discussion, I often ask if they have or have ever had a companion animal; almost everyone answers “yes.” Then I ask them how they would feel if their dog, cat, rabbit, horse, etc., were subjected to the kind of cruelty animals raised for food suffer (and I might even remind them that animals one culture regards as “pets” can be considered “food” by another; it’s all a matter of perception).

Of course, we are only planting seeds here. Those major barriers to change—convenience, tradition, pleasure, and fear—affect everyone differently, and it can take someone years to “get it,” if ever. Moreover, vegan advocates are working against a massive, decades-old marketing machine supported by the deep pockets of animal agribusiness and subsidized by the government. This machine fills screens, airwaves, print media, and (perhaps most insidious of all) public schools with such deceptive messages as “beef: it’s what’s for dinner,” “milk: it does the body good,” and “the incredible, edible egg.” It is also responsible for such lies as the humane myth and the protein myth.

In the face of not only animal cruelty and human health but the ever-increasing climate crisis, there has never been a more critical time for vegan advocacy. Using empathy in persuasion can also be applied to other forms of activism, whether you’re agitating against animal captivity, fur, animal testing, or other forms of exploitation and abuse. I am not suggesting that Pascal’s approach should necessarily be adopted by all activists, but I believe we must be open to new tactics and strategies—even if they are centuries old.