Navigating tough talks

Animal research, GMOs, vaccines, climate change… Some scientific topics can be sensitive or controversial to talk about, but that makes it even more important to engage.

Drawing on my experience communicating about animal research, I recently shared insights at a seminar on effectively handling challenging topics. In this blog, I’ll recap some key tips and strategies that can empower you to navigate tough talks on complicated issues.


Tip 1: Team up

Having challenging conversations can be emotionally draining and time-consuming. The good news is: you don’t need to do this alone.

Collaborate with like-minded individuals, form a team, and share the load. A collective effort not only lightens the burden but also brings diverse perspectives to the table.

Tip 2: Speak up

Don’t feel discouraged or shy. You are the right person to share your knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you are a PI, technician, postdoc, PhD student…

If everyone assumes there is someone more knowledgeable who could speak up, the result is that no one will. Remember, your perspective adds depth and authenticity to the conversation, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject for your audience.

If more (diverse) voices speak out on an issue, this will amplify the message. 

Tip 3: Facts don't change minds

Communication is a two-way street, and understanding the emotional context is key. In emotionally charged discussions, simply presenting facts isn’t going to cut it. It’s essential to engage in a dialogue, actively listen to others, and consider their perspectives.

Don’t just respond whenever you spot misinformation, but communicate proactively. Building trust takes time, so be patient, and don’t loose sight of your own biases and your positionality.

How to deal with misinformation & backlash?

Show You Care. Craft responses that not only correct misinformation but also make the audience feel heard. Show that you’ve listened and understood the concerns. Even if the original poster may not change their stance, your responses contribute to the broader conversation and influence others who are listening in.

Develop a strategy to handle trolls. Trolls can be a challenging aspect of online communication. Develop a clear policy for dealing with them, focusing on diffusing rather than fueling their negativity. Consider ignoring or blocking them if necessary. Remember, your goal is not to convince extremists but to make sure the public conversation is balanced and informed with evidence.

In the words of Coldplay, “Nobody said it was easy.” Navigating tough talks is undoubtedly challenging, but even more important than sharing the ‘good news’ on specific scientific results. That is why it is so important to keep the conversation going, despite the challenges.

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