They say you should never talk about money, sex or politics at the dinner table, but it seems that we’ve collectively added climate change to this list.
One of the statistics that prompted us to begin thinking about climate conversations in the first place is the finding that 55% of people rarely, or never, talk about climate change – which means many of us aren’t being asked what we think about an important issue that will have an increasing impact on our lives.
If we want to change this – and we really do – then we have to grapple with where this conspiracy of silence is coming from. What’s stopping even the most passionate of climate advocates from speaking up, other than in rooms where they already know people agree with them?
We’ve been listening carefully to what the members and supporters of our partner organisations have told us in the course of designing and delivering our pilot training programme – here’s a whistlestop tour of the barriers that keep coming up and some ideas about how to overcome them.
1. “I don’t know how to start.”
Conversations with people we don’t know well – the parent at the school gates, the new person at church, the woman who lives two doors down – can feel awkward at the best of times, never mind when bringing up an issue as vast as climate change. Many of us struggle to find ways to bring it up in a way that feels natural or relevant to the context in which the conversation has arisen in the first place.
This awkwardness can be absolutely paralysing and so instead of saying something, we say nothing, then feel guilty about letting an opportunity pass us by – which in turn exacerbates that feeling of paralysis.
So, instead of beginning with climate, try to start the conversation with something you know the person cares about. This could be their children, a particular green space, their job, the cost of living or the place where they live. Try asking a related open question like ‘how are you finding the school run?’, ‘are you noticing the rising prices in the supermarket?’ or ‘what was your experience of the storms?’ then listen carefully to their answer. From there you can try linking to issues like public transport, choosing to eat less meat or transitioning to renewable energy.
2. “I don’t know enough about the facts.”
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that in order to speak convincingly about climate change, we need to first develop some kind of side hustle as a climate scientist or heat pump engineer. There’s a real fear that if the facts don’t trip off our tongue with ease, we’ll fail to convince the person we’re speaking to, or look like an idiot who doesn’t know what we’re talking about.
As one person told us: “I was away with friends last weekend and was chatting to a friend’s husband about [climate] but I couldn’t recall all the facts and figures and feel like I’m failing to convince people.”
What makes this problem even worse is that if we’re talking with someone and our minds are occupied with recalling data, we aren’t able to properly listen to what they’re saying to us, so we forfeit the opportunity to really connect with them on the issue.
Instead, you could try to swap facts for stories. Humans respond so much better to stories and they are much easier for us to remember and share. Are there some particular hopeful stories about climate action you could have in your back pocket for next time you’re chatting with someone? They could be as basic as what a local wildlife group has been up to, or maybe you’ve seen something inspirational on the news or on social media? One of our personal favourites is this story about oil workers working alongside anti-fossil fuel campaigners. If none spring to mind, try this Google search for inspiration.
3. “I don’t want to come across as preachy, annoying or judgemental. I’m worried about ruining the atmosphere.”
Our perception of what other people might think of us has a huge impact on whether or not we’re prepared to start talking about climate change. We’re worried that if we bang the drum too hard we’ll put people off, or worse, become isolated within communities like our churches or children’s schools. We have a real fear that we’ll be labelled as a ‘climate person’ who only wants to talk about one thing and that people will start to switch off from what we say, or even avoid us.
This puts people who care about climate change in an awful position where they feel awkward about speaking up, and guilty if they don’t. Awkwardness and guilt are not particularly helpful emotions in that they block us from connection and leave us unable to act in a positive way in accordance with our values.
One way to overcome this is to be extra attentive to the person you’re speaking with so you can assure yourself that you’re not invading their boundaries. Ask yourself, is this a good time for them to talk? If they’re clearly rushing off somewhere or have something else weighing on their mind, engaging with you won’t be their top priority.
Do they seem happy to engage with your questions or do they keep changing the subject? If so, it’s perfectly ok to allow them to opt out. Remember, it’s hard for us to know what’s going on in a person’s head at any given time, so if it seems like someone doesn’t want to engage, it could be for a million reasons other than that they don’t want to talk about climate with you. If you keep your exchange light, you can always try another time.
4. “It’s too much pressure.”
If we do manage to get a conversation going about climate change it can feel like it’s our ‘One Big Chance’ to convince the person we’re speaking with and if they don’t come out the other side having had some sort of Damascene conversion, then we’ve failed. This pressure is a huge burden to carry around and if we’re telling ourselves the stakes are this high then it’s no wonder we’re keeping our mouths firmly closed.
Pressure can also arise because of how we feel about the gravity and implications of the climate crisis. Faced with what we know that the consequences of inaction might be, it’s easy to feel compelled to shake other people awake but this can be a slippery slope to burnout.
A great way to take the pressure off is to see every conversation as an experiment. This means that the success of each interaction is about how much you learned, rather than how ‘well’ you did in the conversation. Each chat might be an opportunity to test one of the tips in this blog. Ask yourself ‘could I try a new way in?’ or ‘might this be a good time to tell this particular story?’ With each experiment, the more you’ll learn and the more you learn, the more confident you’ll become!
5. “It makes me too angry.”
One of the hardest things to conquer when it comes to having conversations is the negative emotions that they can provoke in us, feelings that we don’t particularly want to be feeling or even acknowledging – like frustration, judgement or even anger – especially about people we like, or who we want to like us.
Hearing about someone’s long-haul holiday or gas-guzzling new car can be an emotional trip wire, and once we’re in a lather, it’s so much harder for us to think clearly and engage with them in a meaningful way.
What’s more, people are usually pretty alert to the fact that they are being judged, and this is unlikely to leave them feeling safe to talk about their own thoughts, opinions and concerns about climate change, so it’s a lose-lose situation when it comes to having a good conversation.
If this is something you’re struggling with, take a step back and put yourself in their shoes. The man with his motor running outside a primary school – he wants to get his daughter safely home. The woman driving a big SUV – she had a road accident and a bigger car makes her feel safe. The teenager with a Shein obsession – they want to fit in with their friends. If you want to help people to make different choices in the future, trying to understand them in the present is a good place to start.
If some of these reasons resonate with you hopefully you now know that you’re not alone – in fact, you’re definitely in the majority!
One of our missions as part of this conversational training pilot is to help people to explore their own particular barriers so that they can start to dismantle them and finally get talking.