“Do you ever get tired of them writing you big checks?” I was at a friend’s house a few years ago for Thanksgiving and my friend’s dad had just found out that I taught people how to teach and talk about climate change for a living.
He was promoting the idea that scientists and educators who work on climate change are in it for the money which is laughable. He was clearly itching for a debate and I was just there to eat some pumpkin pie and go home.
Eventually we’re going to get together with friends and family again and that’s when topics like climate change come up, along with all the other issues of the day. Situations like that can feel like one of those freeze frame things where the camera zooms in on your wide-eyed “uh-oh” face. If you get into a talk about climate change how will it go?
Is it going to turn into a big thing where you say yes, climate change contributes to wildfires and then they argue with you? Are they bringing it up because they genuinely don’t know what to think? Is this a golden chance to share some great eco-nuggets as a good sustainable lifestyler? Who knows?
If you’re a person who just wants to do your green home practice and DIY your things and be happy at home, that can be scary. If you’re a person who wants to talk about it because you know it’s important, it’s also scary.
You’re afraid you’ll be the obnoxious “that person” if you talk about climate change. Or that people will judge you. And at the same time people need to talk about important things.
It’s an uncomfortable thing to know you want to step into your voice, do your part, help your loved ones and also have no idea how it’s going to go.
Psychology is here to help
Fortunately, it’s not hard to learn to have a useful conversation that also keeps the peace. Psychology has a lot to say about how to have productive climate conversations with friends and family.
Imagine that you could learn just a few tips and strategies to engage productively, protect your relationships and maybe even enjoy yourself, just by thinking it through beforehand and keeping your head.
One of the most important things you can do for the climate is to talk about it. If you’re not used to talking about climate change it can feel daunting. But with an open heart and a little preparation it’s really doable.
Want your climate conversation know-how all in one place? Here’s a quick start guide I wrote to go with this post with bonus tips, checklists and curated resources.
Talk about climate change without being “that person”
This holiday season is going to be different. Family gatherings will be smaller than usual or more socially distanced. But, whatever form your celebrations take, we’re all still families doing what families do, which is to gather (even if it’s virtual), eat food, agree and disagree and try to get along.
No one wants conflict during the holidays, especially now. So, how do you talk about climate change in a way that protects relationships, that invites people along, and that you feel good about later?
They’re more open than you think
In 2020, two out of three Americans are either worried or somewhat worried about climate change. That’s a pretty high percentage, especially when we all have plenty of other things to be worried about these days. Six in ten are interested in climate change. At the same time, six in ten say they never or rarely discuss climate change.
People underestimate the extent to which other people want to talk about climate change. You have an opportunity to make a difference.
People trust information from those in their own social network more than they trust news sources or someone they don’t know. You don’t have to live like a monk, or have a mythical zero impact life to be a messenger. You just need to have some action and some conviction.
That means that if you bravely step into the conversation, you’re doing a real service. The goal is to plant a seed that helps people move forward.
So how do you do it? Here are a few ways to prepare before you show up for the holiday, tips for what to do during the get-together and tips for afterwards.
Before you talk about climate change
Here are some things to know and do before you even leave the house. Just a little time spent thinking about the people you’ll see and what they care about and what you might want to say is worth it.
Lead with your example
Your actions show your conviction more than your words ever could. To open the topic beforehand you could say something like “I’d really like my gifts this year to be second-hand if possible” or “Because I’ve been eating more plant-based meals for the environment, I want to bring a vegetarian entree to backyard Thanksgiving”.
Anticipate common ground values and emotions
If facts alone changed society, we’d be done. People become open when their emotions are involved, when they feel safe, and when they feel there’s a path forward. Only then do people become interested in facts that might help them take some next steps.
Think about your relatives and what they care about. Do they care about nature, justice, animals, skiing, gardening, the kids in the family, security, jobs? Those are the things to start with if/when the conversation turns to climate-related topics.
Learn something, but not everything
Do you have any personal stories from yourself or people you know? Those are the most persuasive.
You already know enough. You don’t need to know all the data and all the ins and outs.
People turn off if you overwhelm them with statistics and research studies. But if it makes you more comfortable, review a little before you go.
For your own confidence’s sake you may want to know a little about how climate change affects wildfires or hurricanes or what good news is happening in renewable energy.
The best news sources are from government agencies and nonprofits that translate scientific knowledge into accessible formats, such as Climate.gov and the NASA climate site. There are some good public facing nonprofits with excellent introductions.
Just know what’s going on with the news of the day and call it good. You don’t have to be a climate scientist to step into this topic and in many ways it’s better if you aren’t one.
Practice talking about climate change
This is something you can practice at home. In my previous career I helped scientists learn how to talk about climate change. They knew the science but not the psychology of communicating about the climate. We even role played scenarios until they were comfortable..
If you want to you can practice in the mirror, thinking through what your relatives might say and how you would respond using the tips in this article. It doesn’t take much, just a little forethought.
Commit to curiosity and connection
The best way to be sure the conversation stays productive is to commit to curiosity, better understanding and protecting the relationship. You do that by asking questions, keeping your cadence slow, your tone friendly, cracking jokes if appropriate, being someone who clearly is looking for a friendly conversation with someone they care about.
Manage your expectations
It’s not magic. People don’t have mega-transformations before your eyes because you said the right thing. It’s a win if you plant some seeds of truth and positive actions. You might never see the seeds bear fruit. It’s more about showing up as your best self than about any outcome.
Talking about climate change in the kitchen and while watching football
It’s always hard to know when you should start a conversation.
If people know you care someone will probably ask you what you think. If so, your job is to keep the conversation productive.
If the time is right you can bring the topic up yourself. There are some right ways and some less right ways to get into it.
If someone else brings it up
Someone might ask you what you think since they know you care. Or someone might bring up how it’s been too warm to grow lettuce in their garden or that they had to keep the kids inside because of wildfire smoke. That’s your cue.
If you start the conversation
Lead with words other than “climate change” or “global warming” first. The easiest way to lead into climate change in a way people can hear is to edge into it with questions and different words.
You can ask something like “have you been affected by the wildfire smoke?” to let people step into it without feeling confronted. Remember, this is a big topic and people need to ease into it. You can get into the climate after the conversation has started.
No matter who brings up the topic, keep the conversation focused on their interests and values and on being a kind guide. Demonstrate that you understand their perspective and that you enjoy their company.
Remember values and commonalities
We all have more in common than we do in difference. We all want security for ourselves and our kids and loved ones, we all want to be loved, we all want to make a contribution and to have some fun.
Leading with the values and interests you have in common with your conversational partner is the best way to start talking about climate change.
Tell me more
The easiest way to have a productive conversation is to ask questions. If someone says “I just don’t know what to think.” ask “how are you learning about it now?”. If someone says “I think it’s too late.” ask them to tell you more.
Questions help you learn about their viewpoint, establish a non-judgy non-conflictual space to talk and gives you a chance to breathe and center.
Help people see a way forward
Share good news. Humans hate uncertainty. When confronted with something that feels intractable, it’s easier to ignore it. A big part of why people don’t talk about climate change is that the reality is uncomfortable.
Share news of renewable energy advances and give examples of people doing smart things and making green innovations. Our future is still determined by our present and a lot of people are working on this.
Share your joy in your own sustainable practice
It’s fun to grow a garden and have chickens, or to make things yourself, or to be confident in your path and your choices. Share how your practice makes you feel happy, or healthy, or more connected to people. Everyone wants these things.
The path to sustainability is a happy one. Show your friends and family that you aren’t talking about some dour and joyless eschewing of all the things; you’re talking about a satisfying and meaningful life.
If you encounter resistance
Your job is to not engage in conflict, to be kind, and to give people useful pathways forward. You are the kind greeter of the movement. Remember to commit to curiosity, to ask questions and to manage your expectations.
Check your demeanor
If you encounter resistance or pushback, first take a deep breath. Ask questions to give yourself some space, keep your voice calm and slow. Your job is to be cool. Maintain calm. Nothing here can hurt you.
Validate their viewpoint
Whatever people say, there’s a way to validate their viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with wrong “facts”, but you can understand and acknowledge what people say. People can continue to talk if you find the places where you agree.
If “It’s not fun to talk about this on a holiday” then “I get it, yes it’s not the most fun topic. It’s just really important to me to be able to talk about what I care about with my family. I appreciate that you’re willing to talk about it at all.”
Or if they say “The wildfires are all due to poor forest management” then “Yes, I’ve seen some of that and there HAS been some poor forest management. And it turns out it’s more complicated than that.”
Debunk myths without reinforcing them
The word “debunk” is problematic because it implies that you know the truth and others don’t. But what if you do? Myths are sticky ideas that appeal to people, either because they came from a trusted source, they make people feel better, or it’s a simple explanation for something that’s otherwise complex.
To replace the sticky idea with something stickier, first state the correct fact, then give an explanation for why the myth exists without calling people’s motives into question.
Let’s start with the wildfire myth: “Wildfires are caused by poor forest management.”. To get into a better conversation try this: “The wildfires are so bad for a bunch of reasons, including forest management, climate change and local conditions”.
Then give a reason for why the myth exists: “People have focused on forest management because it feels more manageable than dealing with climate change. A plan that keeps people safe will have to take everything into account”.
The guide that accompanies this post has a link to an excellent debunking guide.
Don’t take the debate bait
Just don’t. Debates on whether or not climate change is happening or whether humans are causing it are so last century. A debate is uncomfortable for the onlookers, and legitimizes the non-factual position.
There’s legitimate argument about what to do about climate change. There’s no legitimate argument about whether or not climate change is happening and why.
Say “I care too much about keeping the peace today to get into a debate and I also appreciate that you’re willing to engage at all. I’m here if you ever want to talk about it without arguing. How ‘bout them Buccs?”.
It’s not worth your energy to debate people who aren’t open to a real conversation. Just move on.
To end the climate change talk
You won’t be talking about this all day. Sometimes people want to have an extended conversation and sometimes they don’t. Either way is OK. Talking about this is new for most people so it’s enough to touch on it and move on.
Gauge the interest, engage or let it go having been a kind planter of seeds. End it by making sure you take care of your relationships.
If it went well
If you had a productive and connecting conversation, then great! Thank the person for talking about it. “I really appreciate that we can talk about important things. I’m always up for these conversations if you want to talk more. I’m learning more and more and I love to share it.”
If it could have gone better
If you find out that your relative really doesn’t want to talk about it, well then, you didn’t die. End by being the kind person you are. “Well, even if we don’t agree, if you ever want to talk, I’m here. I appreciate that you even considered talking about this with me.”
Afterwards, have some fun and take care of yourself
If this is the first time you’ve talked about climate change, it’s going to feel weird after. Or maybe it’ll feel great because you were brave and talked about something you care about.
If you were out of your comfort zone you’ll probably second guess what you said. That’s normal. Just sit with it and the discomfort will pass. I promise. I know because I’ve been there.
If you are happy about the conversation, soak it in.
Either way, it’s time to enjoy yourself. Go for a walk, sit in the garden, have a nice meal, watch a funny movie, play with your pets.
It’s ok to take a break from the news of the day and to enjoy your green home and your sustainable living lifestyle, full of life and creativity and peace.
You did well.
Now you know some things about how to talk about climate change
Remember that freeze frame scary place? The one where you know you’ll be asked to talk about climate change and you aren’t sure how to do it? Where you aren’t sure if you’re getting into a fight or about to be an amazing resource?
Congratulations, you’ll never be in that place again. Now you know some productive ways to talk about climate change. Because science.
Imagine you practiced enough that it doesn’t faze you anymore. You know you’re doing your part to have a bigger positive impact. You know you don’t need to know everything; just enough to have a productive conversation and help people see a hopeful way forward.
Imagine it went well, you got to talk about what you care about and you helped your family know what they can do.
Now, your friends and family know you’re a good source of information. You’ve become more confident and used your voice for good.
That’s all to the good. I’d love to hear how it goes. Just shoot me an email or drop a comment.
Here’s that guide again with good info sources and top tips to start talking about climate change. Hope to see you!