Steps To Take When Your Food Conversations Go South

The holidays are a great time to spend with family and friends and rekindle relationships, but sometimes those conversations around the dinner table can be a source of discomfort and angst. Increasingly, along with politics and religion, the topic of food can stir up some hard discussions with the people you love and care for most.

Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, addressed that issue during Monday’s AgriTalk broadcast. He explains that while most farmers like to share facts with people and just “tell it like it is,” that’s not always the best strategy when talking about food and some of the emotions that swirl around topics like genetically modified organisms (GMO) and crop-protection products.

Sharing just the facts with someone doesn't usually change minds when hearts are also involved, Folta says. Instead, he says what can lead to changed minds is how we address the way people feel about an issue or concern, with facts added to the mix.

“The best way to do that is by sharing values, talking about the shared connections you have and looking for common ground,” Folta recommends. “If we start by talking about what's important to people, you’ll find out as they'll say, ‘Well I think that the environment is important, and I think that feeding more people better food is important. I think that keeping farmers profitable is important.’”

Whatever people say concerns them, hone-in on that. In the process, do more listening and less talking. Use some empathy. “Tell people you understand—how you care about what you’re eating and feeding your family—take a soft approach to your responses,” Folta encourages. “You want to disengage that me-versus-them mentality at family gatherings, even though we don’t see eye to eye all the time.”

Keep in mind that your friends and family are going to bring up facts and myths alike that they've read and heard about agriculture and food production. For many people, their views are shaped increasingly by content shared via social media. Folta notes that 900 billion minutes are spent daily on Facebook, 500 million tweets are sent out every day, and 5 billion YouTube videos are watched every day.

Agriculture has to be involved in those discussions via social media, Folta adds. “That space is critical because when you find someone online that's saying something that's not accurate about food or farming and you respond to that, you’re not just responding to them. You're responding to thousands of people that are watching or listening to that conversation,” he notes.

Folta says he learned how to take a shared values approach to talking about food sensitivities over time, once he realized the facts-only strategy didn’t work. If you find that strategy doesn’t work with your family and friends, either, take a new approach. During this holiday season, if things get a bit heated around the dinner table, take a time out. Just stop the conversation, get a grip on your emotions and ask if you can regroup later. Along with that, tell your family member or friend you care about what they think and feel and that you’ll make plans to talk again about food another day and another time.