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Six tips for better climate conversations

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

When talking about important but complex issues like climate change, we all hope for meaningful, productive conversations. But sometimes, these conversations can end in hurt or embarrassment. In these moments, it’s important to reflect on what happened.

Here’s where we sometimes go wrong:

We fall into the information trap

We put our faith in the facts and believe “raising awareness” or “getting our message across” is the answer. You might hear yourself saying, “Research says…?” and “Did you know…?” Unfortunately, facts alone don’t change minds, especially if someone isn’t ready or willing to hear them.

Our anxiety leads to poor communication

When we are feeling overwhelmed about climate change, our focus can sometimes be on our own distress. The conversation is really an attempt to get rid of our anxiety. We need someone to be angry with or to take responsibility for the problem. When this happens, people may respond with reassurance, telling us the government will solve the problem. Or they might feel frustrated and retaliate with their own feelings of frustration and anger.

People use projection and scapegoating as a defense

Sometimes the person with whom you’re having a climate conversation is anxious themselves and you become the scapegoat. They might accuse you of making them feel guilty or anxious. Or, in their minds, you become the judgmental or nagging parent.

So, how do we move forward? What can we bring into conversations with others to make them more meaningful and engaging?

The most productive conversations happen when you are calm, aren’t desperate for a certain outcome, and are feeling positive and confident about yourself. Meaningful conversations happen when you’re truly interested in the other person, when you empathize with the other person’s feelings and experiences, and when you listen more than you speak.

Here are a few considerations and tips to take into account when thinking about your climate conversations:

  1. Check in with yourself. Notice how you’re feeling. Is it calm, confident, connected, and ready to truly listen? These are signs that you’re in the right mindset.

  2. Consider time and place. Who are you with and what is the setting? Are the people you’re with prepared to have a conversation? Don’t be afraid to set a date and time in advance for these types of conversations. That way, both parties will be ready and expecting to talk.

  3. Listen empathetically & be curious: When truly listening, you are letting the other person know you are not there to judge but to try and understand. Curiosity is a great tool to help you see what is important to them. A way to do this is by asking open honest questions. These are questions where you truly don't know the answer and can’t be answered with a yes or no.

  4. Don’t forget the feelings, but don’t try to fix them. Try to notice what the other person is feeling as they speak with you. This can be really helpful when you encounter ambivalence (I want to change, but... ) or resistance (I don’t want to change because…). When you encounter these moments, try to name what it is you think the other person is feeling (for example: “it sounds like you’re feeling frustrated. Can you tell me more about that?”). This will open up the conversation and allow you to understand where the other person is coming from. Although it can be tempting, your role is not to try and make them feel differently. Your role is to acknowledge where they’re at and create a space where they feel comfortable sharing with you.

  5. Promote self-efficacy. It’s important to help people find their own strengths and solutions. Action planning and goal setting can be effective ways to promote self-efficacy. It’s also important to normalize that challenges and failures are bound to happen, and that the climate action journey is a learning and growth experience for us all.

Although these tips will help you in your conversations, don’t expect instant change. It might take a few conversations with someone before they start to take steps forward. Meet them where they’re at, and let them know you’re available to chat with them in the future if they need or would like to. It can be scary or nerve racking to have these conversations. So the most important thing to remember is: no matter how well it goes, if you learned something from it, you’ve done well.

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