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3 Steps to More Effective Conversations With Consumers

When it comes to communicating about agriculture and food issues, Roxi Beck says following your gut instincts is fraught with peril. In her job as vice president at Look East, Beck works with food and agriculture-focused organizations. “We’ve been missing the mark,” she says. “But we can change that.

“All too often, when someone makes a false statement, we immediately engage, correct the misinformation, and call it a win,” Beck says. “Then one day, we realize the person no longer speaks to us.”

Beck says that inundating consumers with an information dump won’t change their minds. “Facts used to drive everything,” she says. “They’re still important, but if the goal is building trust in food and agriculture, they’re not the most valuable element.”

In fact, competence (based on science and/or technology) is only one of three factors driving trust. “Science addresses whether we can do something, but consumers aren’t asking if we can,” she says. “They’re asking if we should. That’s an ethical question.

“Factual information must come from someone who’s worthy of trust. Research shows that shared values are three to five times more important than competence alone,” she says. 

Beck, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm, says economics don’t necessarily win the day, either. “When we talk about adopting a practice to increase profits, consumers believe it’s all about the money, and we’ll do anything – at the expense of food, animals, and the planet – to make more of it,” she says.

Beck says three specific behaviors undermine trust, and we should stop doing them. 

1. Stop persuading.

People develop opinions and beliefs based on a lifetime of experience. Trying to convince them to abandon their beliefs without understanding their worldview is a recipe for failure.

2. Stop correcting.

Responding to a sincere belief with a factual correction isn’t the answer. “If you learn how they arrived at their belief, they’re less likely to feel you’re insulting their intelligence,” she says.

3. Stop educating.

“Farmers often tell me, ‘If we could educate consumers, none of these topics would be issues,’” Beck says. “That may be true, but it’s an unreasonable goal to bring Americans up to speed on what we know. They’re exposed to confusing labels, marketing campaigns, and messages. Introducing a new set of facts that challenge their beliefs isn’t likely to resonate.”

Beck suggests three steps to more effective conversations. 

1. Start listening without judgment.

Too often a consumer comment triggers a programmed response. “Listen first, then enter the conversation with an open mind and take their concerns seriously,” she says. “Their perception is reality.”

2. Start acknowledging their concerns and asking questions.

“Unless we understand the values driving concerns and skepticism, we may fail to address their key issues,” she says. “Dig deeper, and show empathy. Does an individual worried about chemicals have a family member battling cancer? Do parents fighting livestock odor have a child with severe asthma?”

3. Start sharing who you are when you talk about what you know.

“Talk about why you do what you do and why you’re committed to sustainability practices, ensuring a safe food supply, contributing to community, or caring for animals,” Beck says. “Then you can use science and facts to demonstrate how it’s done.

“The first step is embracing the skepticism surrounding food and farming,” Beck says. “There’s nothing more personal than the food we put in our bodies and choose for our families. There’s never been as much interest in how food is grown and produced, combined with so little access to the actual process.”

This is exacerbated by misinformation making the rounds on social media, she says. 

“The person on the other end of the conversation wants to be heard and acknowledged, and wants to obtain credible information from a trusted source with shared values,” Beck says. “You need to be ready to join the conversation.”

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