Vance Crowe on turning agricultural enemies into adversaries


People in agriculture often think of people outside of the industry as enemies, as people who are yelling their “wrong” opinions louder and more often than we are yelling ours.

We then feel the need to yell our “right” opinions back at them. With all of the yelling, no one wins. It just breeds distrust and anger.

Those feelings create what is commonly viewed as opponents of modern agriculture and people who we perceive to have no common ground with us. Vance Crowe, a communication consultant, has been working on addressing this for years, from his experience as Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto to now running his own communications company, where he speaks to groups and provides guidance to companies.

“I think one of the problems of the ‘tell your story mindset’ is that we’re designed to tell the best parts of our story,” said Crowe. “But an actually true story, the ones that we care about, have two parts — they have internal and external conflicts.”

He explains these conflicts through Jurassic Park. The external conflict is escaping the dinosaurs and getting off the island. The internal conflict is the lead character struggling with wanting a family and trying to stop living in the past. “We can’t apply much from how to escape from dinosaurs, but we can learn from the person needing to confront living in the past as opposed to the present,” said Crowe.

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Internal and external conflicts help build connections, because everyone is struggling with something. And that struggle can be a shared experience.

One way to foster such a connection, according to Crowe, is by changing our way of thinking. His example was Monsanto — when he initially interviewed in 2014, he thought he could write an expose revealing a sinister underbelly of the company — but he realized they were doing good work, and he changed his viewpoint on them. He can use that experience to connect with people, by acknowledging that he used to have antagonistic feelings toward Monsanto before opening up his perspective.

“It really comes down to what experience did you have that forced you to change the way you thought about something,” said Crowe. “That forcing you to change is the thing that other people will understand. They can relate to the internal conflict that occurred first.”

Relating to people on a personal level through admitting internal conflict can turn an enemy into an adversary. Which is a key distinction according to Crowe.

On The Vance Crowe Podcast, ag economist Barry Flinchbaugh discussed the difference between enemies and adversaries. According to Flinchbaugh enemies are belittled, but adversaries are viewed as an equal, but someone who we need to deal with on our path up the mountain. An adversary will show us where our arguments are flawed, and through our interaction with and progression past them, our arguments will become better.

The key to overcoming adversaries is finding the correct adversary. “You want to look for a person that you respect the most, but disagree with the most,” said Crowe. “Start with your network of people and ask who is someone that you think is awesome but believes something categorically different than you.”

Once that person is found a conversation ensues. Many people have the urge to strawman their enemies, a communication theory that involves finding the weakest argument and breaking it apart — showcasing the flaws. When working with adversaries as opposed to enemies, Crowe suggests the opposite communication theory — a steelman. This process involves taking their argument and improving it for them, explaining it back to them and making them agree that you understand.

“Once you are able to articulate their argument better than they can, then you’re ready to start showing them a different way of thinking about it,” explained Crowe. “The very act of demonstrating that you understand what they’re saying and can strengthen their argument helps them see that you’re trying to come to the best decision possible.”

Crowe’s April 14 tweet about coronavirus articulates the point another way.

This model of communication forces you to consider the critic’s point of view. It helps build connections because it begins from a place of respect. Crowe says considering other perspectives can be beneficial in building your own argument.

“Remember they’re yelling because they think they know something that you’re not willing to listen to or admit,” he said. “How can I be open to what they’re saying without being indoctrinated by their ideology?”

Reaching outside of agriculture can be both difficult and scary. However, a respectful conversation between two people with drastically different opinions can lead to beneficial results. “You can change the dynamic very quickly by being there and being respectful,” said Crowe.


Michelle Bufkin is a freelance communication specialist whose goal is to help producers bridge the farm-to-plate knowledge gap that exists with consumers today. She uses her full-time position as the Membership and Communication Director at the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association to interact with producers and work on building that connection.

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