Climate conversations: what we learned in our first round of prototypes

We’ve finished the first round of prototypes on our climate conversations project! It’s been a brilliant experience – we learned so much, and we’re already thinking hard about the next stage. But before that, we’d love to share some of what we found…

By Alex Evans — 17th Jan · 12 min read

We’ve finished the first round of prototypes on our climate conversations project! It’s been a brilliant experience – we learned so much with our four partners (UNISON, Parents For Future, Tearfund and Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire), and we’re already thinking hard about the next stage. But before that, we’d love to share some of what we found.

As you’ll already know if you’ve been following the project’s progress (here’s the story so far, including a summary of what the training looked like), our starting point in the project was that:

– 57% of people in the UK say they rarely or never talk about climate change,

– Polls show the UK has the least welcoming climate movement of any country in Europe, and

– Conversations are a vital part of building support for urgent action on climate change – or indeed any other issue – and creating pressure for politicians to act

With all this in mind, we designed and ran a training to help people to have hopeful, empowering conversations about climate change. We were aiming less at conversations with close friends and family, or with strangers on their doorsteps (like in deep canvassing), and more on what sociologists call weak tie’ conversations: the kind we have at school gates, in supermarket queues, at water coolers, or over garden fences. 

So what did we learn? Here’s the short version of our 5 top line take-aways – if you’d like to find out more, you’ll find the full version below!

1. We’re more sure than before that there’s real potential here. 85% of Workshop participants and 95% of Challenge participants reported that they feel more able and confident to have climate conversations.

2. Scalability is a key focus for the next round. We’ll be testing a train-the-trainer model with our partners, to maximise the reach of the approach.

3. We need to frame conversations differently – the focus needs to be more specific than “climate”, and instead zoom into issues (e.g. warm homes or the oil and gas sector) or places

4. Do conversations need to lead up to an ‘ask’? Having a clear ask can give a real sense of impact – but also slides back into the dynamic where we’re the experts, talking at our audience. We have thoughts on a possible way through on this in the next round.

5. What does impact look like? We’ve been thinking lots about what successful conversations look like – especially how conversations can help seed new values in society, as happened with the seismic values shift on equal marriage.

Interested to find out more? Read on for the whole story!

1. We’re more sure than before that there’s real potential here

We weren’t taking it as a given that the basic idea would work: if not, still useful learning! There might have been insufficient interest among potential partners or their members. People might not have enjoyed the training, or found it helpful. People doing the 6-week Challenge might have dropped out. People might not have had any conversations!

In the event, though, it went better than we dared hope, and we’re more convinced than ever that there’s something powerful here with huge potential. 

It’s clear that there’s huge appetite for this kind of approach. We had more interest from organisations interested in partnering than we had capacity to work with, and had to turn people away for all three stages of training. 

The Workshops really landed with people. Over 85% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that “I feel more confident to have conversations about climate”. 

People thrived in the small groups at the heart of the 6-week Challenge. Over 95% of Challenge participants agreed or strongly agreed that “I feel more able to talk about climate change to people who I wouldn’t usually talk about climate with”.

We think a lot of this success is rooted in how our approach is rooted in psychology and relationships. In feedback sessions, trainees frequently highlighted both the connection they found in their groups (e.g. “It was quite nerve-wracking joining the group, but I feel sad that it’s finished now, I feel like I’ve developed relationships with [everyone]”), and how their own confidence and sense of agency had grown.

2. Scalability is a key focus for the next round

As encouraging as the findings above are, we’re clear that the project will only deliver real political impact if it’s capable of scaling up in ways that can move the political needle – and it’s here that the biggest impact question for the future lies. 

Our approach to this round of prototypes was highly resource-intensive. We presented all the online talks live, and put a lot of time into hosting all three stages, especially the 6-week Challenge.

As we start to focus more on scale there’s lots we can do to streamline the training (e.g. recording talks rather than doing them live), and in particular we plan to invest heavily in a train-the-trainer model. We tested this with two of our partners in this round of prototypes and saw really encouraging results. Next time, we plan for all of the Challenge hosting to be done by partner hosts.

3. We need to frame conversations differently 

We’ve been thinking of these as “climate conversations” – and talking about them that way too. Not just in the Pitch and Workshop events, but throughout the Challenge, and most importantly in the actual conversations that our trainees then have with people they meet. 

But a key learning from this round is that we need to be more specific than that. We already knew (and our training highlighted) that conversations about climate go better if we link them to things the people we’re talking to love and care about – their kids’ futures, their neighbourhoods, their hobbies, their health. But it turns out that our trainees themselves also find conversations easier if they’re less nebulously framed than “climate change”.

So next time around, we plan to zoom in a bit more, in one or both of two ways. First, by making conversations more issue-specific – for instance, about warm homes, or the oil and gas sector, or the effects of climate change on nature and wildlife. And second, by making them more localised – so about a particular place or neighbourhood, which is also where we think some of the biggest political impacts might be (we’ll be publishing a separate post soon on what we learned about political strategy).

4. Do conversations need to lead up to an ‘ask’?

For this first round, we wanted to invite trainees to really lean into the listening – break the silence on climate, and make people heard. But there’s still the question for next time: do we want people to feel heard so that they will then listen to us… or is making people feel heard an end in itself? Should conversations lead up to a specific ‘ask’ – sign a petition, write to your MP, eat less meat – or should they be much more open ended than that?

The case for an ask is clear at first glance: it gives a stronger, and more quantifiable, sense of impact. Back when I used to run digital campaigns, I knew to a tenth of a percent how many people opened each test email, clicked ‘sign’ on the petition, and shared it on socials – and there is a lot to be said for the goldmine of data this approach generates. 

The problem with that approach, though – which, of course, is the one we tend to take in the climate movement – is the ‘we know best’ aspect. Even if we make a show of nodding along, we’re still assuming that we’re the ones with the solutions. It’s not really a genuine conversation; it’s a show of one. And the risk with that is that people end up feeling like pawns in someone else’s chess game, and tune out.

So for the next round we plan to focus not on asks but on questions: a sense of where we as a community might be trying to get to, creating a conversation in which both people have space to marshal their thoughts, and both people share their ideas for what to do about it.  It’s then about shared problem solving, not one person ‘selling’ an action to another. It builds agency rather than making people feel overwhelmed. And it’s rooted in an idea of distributed, self-organised system change in which all of us matter, rather than top down control.

5. What does impact look like?

Finally, there’s the really big question in all of this: what does impact even look like here? 

There’s lots we can measure and evaluate in this project: numbers of people trained, learning outcomes observed, numbers of conversations had, and so on. But where it all gets a lot harder and more complicated is in trying to figure out whether any given conversation generated real political impact – and if so, what kind. 

Let me explain with a story from the project. It was week 5 of one of the Challenge sessions, in the section where participants check in and report back on how their conversations have gone. One participant, Laura, had a brilliant tale to tell. 

She’d been away for a weekend as a respite break from caring responsibilities, staying at an upmarket pub on the coast. On the Saturday night, while she was enjoying a drink at the bar, there was a huge noise outside as a helicopter landed on the lawn. Shortly afterwards, its pilot sauntered into the bar for a drink, clearly enjoying having made such a big entrance.

Laura felt torn. She didn’t want to cause a scene or get into an argument. But on the other hand – flying your helicopter to the pub for a quick drink? Really? And wasn’t this exactly what the conversation training had been for? So she decided to say something. But not to call the pilot out, or shame him in front of everyone – instead, more like gentle teasing. 

So how did it go? There was a good natured debate. Some other people in the bar joined in. But, Laura reported, “I don’t think anyone had their minds changed”.

Or did they? Because actually, this anecdote has some really interesting implications to unpack in terms of what impact looks like

To start with, I bet that helicopter pilot does think twice before flying to the pub again. Well, you might think, even if that’s true, so what? It’s still firmly at the level of changes in personal consumption patterns (even if it’s a change from the usual ‘eat a bit less meat, recycle a bit more’) rather than a bigger systemic shift – right?

Well, maybe not. We’ve reflected a lot on the team about Laura’s story, and we’re not so sure. Because what happened in that pub, as Laura gently made her point and others joined in, was not only about breaking the silence on climate change – it was also about modelling new values.

It’s through conversations like this that what’s acceptable or normal shifts in a society – just like what happened on support for equal marriage, say, or how drink driving became not OK.

And the new values that Laura was modelling weren’t just about climate change, either. She was also ‘calling in’ rather than calling out, avoiding showdowns that shame people, instead seeking to engage and have a conversation. This is the kind of change-making that’s too often absent from the kind of climate campaigning that hits the news – but maybe it’s exactly the kind of change-making we need, if we want to win people over from outside our traditional audiences.

That’s it for this post – but there’s lots more to come!

In posts to follow, we’ll share more about the approach we took to this first round of prototypes, and also say more about how we plan to evolve our testing in phase 2 in the spring of this year (including how your organisation can be part of it, if you’re interested). We’ll also be publishing our full evaluation at the end of January.

For now, a massive thank you again to our wonderful partners – UNISON, Parents For Future, Tearfund and Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire- and please do get in touch with us at if you’d like to find out more or are interested in ways to get more involved in the project next year.

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