The principles may seem obvious, but trying them out can be a profound experience – particularly in anxious and divisive times.
Respect and connection
The twin ghosts of blame and shame haunt climate conversations, particularly among Westerners. It may feel reasonable – and hard to avoid feeling judgemental of your sister-in-law’s five holidays abroad this year – but the evidence shows that fear, guilt, shame and obligation compromise the quality of the connection between two people.
Instead, like all other conversations, a good climate conversation is about building a connection between people, based on mutual respect and a willingness to listen to one another – even if it means swallowing your tongue occasionally. The #TalkingClimate handbook we produced suggests trying phrases like “I find that really hard as well….” or “We don’t agree on this but…”
Open questions and listening
The UK’s national health service (NHS) advises doctors trying to guide their patients to better health choices to ask open questions. This breaks down patterns of attack and defence and draws out the person’s thoughts and feelings about their behaviour.
This advice can pose a challenge to activists as it involves not saying things. Climate conversations can sometimes feel like they’re turning into a Battle of the Alternative Climate Facts – an exhausting and not very productive undertaking. Opening up, focusing on connection, and simply enjoying the conversation, avoids this.
Stories not statistics
People also aren’t motivated by statistics. We are motivated by stories. So telling your ‘climate story’ can be a better way to connect than statistics. It also means that not knowing the exact projection for sea level rise under different AR5 scenarios doesn’t have to kill the conversation.
One way to build a climate story is to reflect on the answers to some simple questions: was there a particular moment when you first became concerned about climate change? What are you doing in response to it now, and how do you feel about that?
Action and bringing it up
It can be hard to know how to bring up the topic of climate change. In our study, respondents who were doing something to tackle climate change – even if small, personal and not reflective of the extent of the problem – found it easier to start conversations about what they were doing. This is in line with previous research showing that the idea of doing ‘something’ makes the intimidating information about climate change easier to cope with.
So if you’re already taking some kind of action, that automatically makes you a good climate conversationalist, and important to the people around you who share your values and are influenced by your behaviour.
Keep going (within reason)
Many of the participants in our study enjoyed having lots of conversations about climate change, and were surprised by the unexpected opinions they encountered in people. One commented: “I was in general surprised to find that people do care.” Another wrote, “I learned a lot from the conversations.” In times of rising climate concern, people may not conform to your preconceptions about what they are going to say.
But there is obviously a balance. Launching into a dissertation about what someone else could be doing will not only undermine their sense of autonomy and personal control over their choices, but also ruin Christmas dinner. Focusing on connection and respect can mean not talking when it isn’t the right time to do so, and not worrying about it.
Conversations aren’t battles to be won and lost. They may just be a brief exchange over peeling sprouts, moving a tiny step closer to social engagement on climate change. Our research suggests that sharing reflections on something you both care about could even make the day richer. I wish I’d known that – and had the courage to try it – back in 2007.