We’ve been designing trainings to help people have conversations about climate change – it’s been a fascinating process so far and we’re learning a lot.
One of the first questions we asked ourselves was ‘what is climate conversation?’, closely followed by ‘how do we know if we’re having a good one?’
We’ve been thinking about this as a team and with the people taking part in our training, learning both from them and from experts like Katharine Hayhoe who are climate conversation pioneers.
We haven’t settled on definitive answers but we think four important conversational ‘hallmarks’ are emerging from the work.
1. You probably won’t talk about climate – at least at the beginning of the conversation
We’ve learned that talking about ‘climate’ is often not the easiest way into a conversation. People taking part in our training tell us that it feels too abstract, too huge a place to start, and they’re right.
It’s much easier to talk about issues that feel more tangible – like warm homes, cheaper energy bills, flood defences, better public transport or clean air near schools. Or even to ask more personalised questions, like ‘did you find it easy to travel here today?’ or ‘how long have you been visiting this woodland?’.
Starting with the relatable has two big benefits. Firstly, it gives the person starting the conversation a solid foothold, a way in, a good excuse to get talking. And secondly, it mitigates against the other person feeling under pressure to have an immediate, well-formed opinion on such a huge, complex issue as climate change.
We are all much more likely to engage in conversations in which we feel we can safely contribute without the risk of being ‘caught out’ for our ignorance. If we’re asked about the reliability of our local bus service, it’s so much easier for us to begin to imagine solutions to a problem and what our part in them might be.
2. It’s a genuine exchange
For a conversation to be meaningful – however brief it is – it needs to be one in which everyone has the opportunity to speak, and more importantly, to feel heard. If we’re only focused on what we want to tell the other person, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to make space to listen to their point of view. There’s nothing quite like being on the receiving end of someone else’s monologue that underlines just how little they care about our thoughts or feelings. Rather than feeling like we want to engage, instead we find ourselves looking for the nearest door.
So a good climate conversation should feel like any other good conversation – one in which there’s a reciprocal exchange of views, ideas and opinions. Rather than focusing on our own set of talking points, we’ll instead be cultivating our curiosity and seeking to find out more about what the other person thinks and why. Climate conversations are not a debate, there’s no ‘winner’ and neither party has to have an immediate change of heart on the spot for it to be a success.
3. You’re not ‘preaching to the choir’
We might feel heartened, validated or even relieved when we’re in a room with people who we know share our views on climate change, but the exchanges we have in these spaces aren’t going to be the ones that make the biggest difference to the climate movement.
It’s the courageous conversations that are a little outside our comfort zone that have the potential to have real impact – the ones where we’re reaching out to people whose views are unknown to us and gently inviting them to share what’s on their mind. This can be a really scary prospect, especially with people we don’t know well, but those taking part in our training have proved – beautifully – that it’s a skill that can be practised and honed.
4. You both learn something
We’re not talking about the trading of climate facts and figures here but the exchange of perspectives, stories and experiences. A good climate conversation is one in which you come away with a greater understanding of the person than you did before you started. What do they care about? What about their life impacts the way they think about climate? Where might you find common ground? Hopefully they’ll go away knowing more about you too – about why you care about the issue at hand, what matters to you and where you might have shared values.
If we replace our drive to convert with curiosity, we’re much more likely to lay the foundations for more conversations in the future. These snippets of knowledge we build up about each other become invisible strings which help to draw us back together again and again. If you initiate a climate conversation, your role isn’t to impart knowledge: it’s to help each of you understand the other better.
We’d love to know what you think! Does this resonate with you? Did we miss something? You can get in touch with us at email@example.com