Canadian Poultry Magazine

7 strategies for tackling tough topics

By Crystal Mackay   

Features Consumer Issues

Here are a few of Crystal Mackay's favourite strategies producers can use the next time they're needing to have a tough conversation. Hint – these tips are helpful in any situation, at work or home! 

When engaging with the public, be prepared to have difficult conversations with people who may have never seen a live chicken before. PHOTO CREDIT: © By Fauzi / Adobe Stock

Everyone eats. Families and friends come together to share stories and celebrate special occasions with a good meal. For those of us who farm or work in agriculture, it’s helpful to remember that food is very personal and emotional. It’s not a ‘commodity’ or an ‘issue’ for most people. 

I started my career with the Ontario Farm Animal Council, the predecessor to the Farm & Food Care organizations. I was so fortunate to be able to represent agriculture and present or work at public events like fairs with model farms for approximately 100 days each year. It was here, standing in front of hens in cages or sows in farrowing pens, that I learned how to have difficult conversations with people who may not have seen a live chicken before. 

Here are a few of my favourite strategies you can use the next time you’re needing to have a tough conversation. Hint – these tips are helpful in any situation, at work or home! 


1.  Be authentic
Today more than ever, people are looking for credible information from people they can trust. Be comfortable in acknowledging where things are imperfect. If you always emphasize the positive only, you will be less believable and viewed as ‘selling’ versus ‘educating.’ 

2.  Acknowledge the concern and connect with shared values
Don’t rush into the answer right away. Take a minute to think. It’s ok to say, “Wow, that is a hard question. I appreciate your concern.” Think about common ground or shared values that might help bridge to some new information such as, “I chose to be a farmer because I genuinely care about animals too.”

3.  Answer a question with a question
Understand their true concern before you start tackling what you think is the problem. Ask a few follow up questions to be sure you are clear on what they are asking or concerned about. “What specifically about how your food is grown are you worried about?” 

4.  Use the time technique – past, present, future
This is a good way to answer concerns that might be dated or inaccurate in Canada. It’s also a great way to acknowledge a real concern with a commitment to the future to improve. “In the past we did [insert response], and today we do [insert response], and in the future research will help us [insert response].”

5.  Plan in advance
If you think about what tough topics you might be faced with in advance, it helps reduce nervousness when they come up. Prepare by grouping tough topics into categories such as food safety, environment, animal care or biotechnology. Practice answering some tough questions and invest in some training to improve how to handle them more effectively. 

6.  Agree to disagree
Learn to look for questions rooted in firmly held beliefs and strong opinions for or against something. Are they really interested in your view or looking for an argument? Save your energy for discussions with those interested in learning or exchanging information with you. Give yourself permission to say, “Sorry you feel that way, let’s agree to disagree.” 

7. “I don’t know”
“I don’t know” is a powerful communications tool. All aspects of the food system are complex. No one can be an expert on all things. It’s always best not to speculate. Be the helpful expert and offer to find the answer, point them to credible resources, or bridge over to your area of expertise. “I don’t know much about that specifically, but I can find out and get back to you.” 

Crystal Mackay is the CEO of Loft32, a company she co-founded with the goal to help elevate people, businesses and the conversations on food and farming. Her latest work includes an online training platform, with on-demand training programs and resources.

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