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Six steps to better consumer conversations

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Far too often, the people who have the most to say have the hardest time saying it

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The science is worth learning. Gaining knowledge about why consumers behave the way they do and make the decisions they do is essential to building constructive, forward-thinking dialogue, engaging in artful and “value-added” arguments, and educating and influencing your audience.
One way to gain insight into how the human brain processes information is by exploring heuristics, or “mental shortcuts.” A throwback to our cave-dwelling days when speed was more important than accuracy, these shortcuts are patterns our brains use when processing information to help us make sense of the world while conserving precious energy.
Unfortunately, they can also negatively affect our daily social communications and interactions by distorting reality and leading to cognitive biases.
Understanding cognitive biases provides insight into how the human brain receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information. You can use this insight to anticipate and strengthen arguments, help debunk myths, and connect with consumers on an emotional level (which is proven to have more impact).
In the coming months, this column will explore a variety of tactics and tools based on brain science. You can then use them in everyday interactions with non-farming audiences to build deeper and more meaningful conversations.
First up: how to keep your cool, stay engaged and keep the conversation constructive.

Related: Join the fight for consumer trust

1. Mentally prepare

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If you know that an upcoming conversation is going to be difficult, you can pre-emptively minimize negative emotions by framing it in a positive way. For example, if you believe the conversation will devolve into an argument about the pros and cons of GMOs, think about it as an opportunity for discussion, teaching, and learning. By focusing on what you have to gain from the interaction, you’ll be engaging with an open mind which will help you find common ground.

Related: The new consumer value

2. Recognize your agitation cues

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Recognize the red flags that indicate you’re starting to feel threatened, such as increased heart rate, hot cheeks, or quicker breathing. Once you’re in fight or flight mode, you risk “losing access to the rational front cortex of the brain and then it becomes more difficult to be your best self,” says Amy Gallo, author of Harvard Business Review’s “Guide to Managing Conflict at Work.” Also watch for these red flags and other body language signs (crossed arms, shifting weight) in those you’re speaking with. Gallo notes that once one person gets heated up, “it’s easier to mirror that behaviour and before you know it, you have two people swinging punches.”

Related: Why you should be on social media

3. Pause to regain perspective

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While the automatic fight or flight response can make it hard to control how we react, you can learn to rein it in by simply taking a moment to pause, breathe and touch a physical object, focusing on how it feels. As long as you can simultaneously focus on the conversation, these tactics will help draw your attention away from your emotional self long enough for the fight or flight response to settle.

Related: New programs aim to educate and reassure consumers about agriculture

4. Hone your emotional intelligence (EI)

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As kids we’re taught to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to help us better understand what they might be struggling with. Cognitive empathy is an important first step in resonating emotionally; being able to understand and reason about the state of another individual helps us determine whether that person is at ease. It also helps triangulate your position: determining what your audience knows and what they need or want to know provides insight into what knowledge you need to share. EI can be learned. It will help you understand others; recognize, comprehend and manage your emotions; and, most importantly, recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.

Related: Even in Feedlot Alley, consumers don’t trust hormone use

5. Smash assumptions

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Assumptions can profoundly influence how we interpret the information we receive and subsequently affect how we interact with others. If you’re already certain that you know what’s going on in someone’s head, your brain will be primed to accept only information that agrees with your preconceived notions. To challenge these beliefs, you’ll need to cultivate a sense of genuine interest about where the other person is coming from and what they might say. You also need to create an environment in which they will feel heard. This type of reciprocal openness creates trust and engagement, and it builds relationships.

Related: New Dutch ‘theme park’ aims to connect consumers with their food

6. Beware the “curse of knowledge”

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Once we know something, it’s hard to unknow it. The curse of knowledge makes it harder for you to understand where the other person is at, making it more difficult to begin a dialogue at the right (and most valuable) starting point and to explain things in a way that would be easily comprehensible to a novice.
Embrace not knowing. With learned beliefs (preconceptions) out of the way, you’ll find yourself in a place of mental openness. No matter how much of an expert you are, if you treat each moment as a blank slate, you’ll be able to maintain shoshin, a Zen Buddhism philosophical concept that means “beginner’s mind.”
Big changes are often the result of small, successive events. Much like the incremental adjustments you make on your farm to boost productivity and increase revenue, the key to getting people to change their behaviour or attitude sometimes lies with the smallest details. Be aware of how your audience receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information and then adjust your messages and approach to ensure you generate the valuable interactions our industry needs.

April Stewart is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Quebec, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and principal of Alba PR, whose latest project is The Farmer’s Survival Guide.

Related: Accentuate the positive — consumers want a happy beef story

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