It’s Thanksgiving and it’s snowing outside: the kind of big, soft peaceful flakes that make you think of your childhood. Then Uncle Ralph puts his hand on your shoulder and says, “Maybe Trump fixed it. Doesn’t look like global warming to me?” Your mother shouts from the kitchen trying to help, “You know (s)he’s a tree hugger Ralph, shut up!

What do you do?

  1. Throw dessert in his face and jamb a turkey leg down his pie hole?
  2. Count to three, and come back with the fact that 16 of the last 17 years have been the warmest on record?
  3. Walk out the door because, obviously, you’ve wandered into the wrong house?

Anyone involved with the climate or environmental movement has experienced these moments. The conventional wisdom is to walk away, because you can’t teach the un-anointed to sing; they are not very good at it, and it pisses them off. This is probably sound advice for those that are deeply entrenched in the climate denier mode. But what about others that are less sure. Does your silence signal agreement? Are they persuadable? Should you speak up?

Today our identity politics defines our position on the environment. According to a recent poll by Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, the environment is now more polarizing than abortion or gun control! Yet, there is nothing inherently controversial about our environment. It should be a concern for everyone, whether you are right or left of the political spectrum. We will never succeed in stemming climate change without our fellow citizens, and we don’t have much time. But how do you have a conversation with someone on the other side?

Here are five steps that might help and some things to think about the next time you encounter a situation like this.

Step 1: Take a breath

Life is a sometimes a battle for control. We are passionate. Our first reaction is often to fight. Sometimes we just need a few seconds to take a breath and assess the situation. We know when our buttons are being pushed. Not all conversations start with provocation, but taking a pause is often the right thing to do.

Because humans tend to look down on those that disagree with them, having a real conversation tends to honor the humanity in someone else. If you are looking down on them, try looking inside.

If you can’t, then walk away, go home and put your head in a pillow and scream. Until we differentiate between passion and anger we are lost. Our anger doesn’t help. We are never really in control.

The other thing is to resist responding to a frame. It’s often the frames of the other side that create a reaction. The concept that “there is no global warming” is a frame. It pushes the buttons on the progressive side like rats in an experiment. The problem is that responding to frames only entrenches their position. Find more on framing here: Climate Change is Real. So What?

Step 2: Understand your audience

The Yale model of belief in global warming is a good place to start [figure below]. Ask yourself who you are talking to, unless it’s your Uncle Ralph. The only way to understand is to have a conversation. Those that are so entrenched in a belief system are probably a waste of time and effort to try to convince. But those who are ‘cautious’, or ‘disengaged,’ and sometimes even the ‘doubtful,’ might engage. In some cases, where beliefs are entrenched, it can take over a dozen conversations to move someone. So don’t expect conversion. The result of most conversations is not to convert someone to your point of view but to move them.

Step 3: Engagement

Begin by not assuming every conservative is the same. When we make assumptions about others, it reflects on our own narrow biases.

If you’ve decided to engage, the best way to do so is to understand. We can’t do this if we proselytize. Spouting facts about a subject tends to deepen the resistance of the other person. It forces them to seek their own facts that reinforce their original beliefs. It’s one of the things that I hear from conservatives all the time, “Those damn liberals just want to tell everyone what to do.”

One of the best ways to understand someone is to them a question. Are you curious about why they hold the beliefs they do? There is always a reason. So the first step in a convincing conversation is not to think of the three things you are going to tell someone, it is to think of the three things you are going to ask them. Then listen to what they have to say.

Often these questions are not about the facts, but about what they believe and why they believe it. We can never understand unless we can listen.

Step 4: Find common values

Beliefs are based on values. Our beliefs often support our issues. Surprisingly, it is very common to share values with those that disagree with us. For example, it is possible to be pro-hunting and pro-environment. It is possible to be for a strong America and a strong environment. Or pro-jobs and pro-environment.

Discovering those common values gives a platform to come to some sort of understanding. Conservative values tend toward, limited government, stewardship, moral duty, and security. But underlying a number of those values are a ‘sense of responsibility.’ Values are a big subject, for more on conservative values see Environmental Messaging: Conservative Moral Hierarchy.

It’s not easy to have a values conversation, but the questions that often help are, “What’s your story about that?”and, “Tell me how you came to that?” Because we don’t think consciously about our beliefs and values, they often come out in stories. The skill is to listen for a common value and then share your story around that value. Emphasizing the value behind why taking care of our environment is important.

In a recent internet conversation with a person involved with states rights surrounding national monuments, I was able to establish common ground by finding we both agreed that it was important to preserve those lands, while we disagreed with who should control federal lands. The underlying value was stewardship and taking responsibility for the earth.

Step 5: Use your language wisely

Cognitive scientists study how our brains work and the psychology of the way we think. They’ve discovered some interesting things about the climate discussion.

We tend to think that all people have the same beliefs we do. One that I hear often is, “Do this for our children.” While we are all concerned with our children, it doesn’t work as well for conservatives as it does for progressives. It is “future” oriented. Conservatives tend to respond to the temporal past more than the temporal future. So saying, “Let’s restore the earth to its former purity,” will resonate more than “Let’s save it for our children or future generations.

The use of medical analogies and describing climate change as a disease often helped conservatives recognize that it is occurring, and caused by humans. The earth is sick, it’s having a hard time breathing because we are using our air as a sewer. Sewers breed disease.

62% of conservatives support clean energy. It’s often more productive to talk about the need for clean energy than climate. It touches on security, health, and independence.

Discussion of local climate issues may also be a key. How has the climate influenced local crop production, weather events, disease progression like Zika or West Nile, or Lymes?

My favorite way to share my values is not to talk about the value of caring for the earth and others, but to talk about my love for nature. Too often I hear a scientifically based discussion of the environment from progressives and liberals. We often suffer from the myth that facts matter. They do at the right time. So I can talk about how I used to like to watch the thunderstorms roll in across the lake. How they were thrilling. But also how I don’t recall it ever raining six to twelve inches at a time when I was a kid. Taking this approach rather than citing the number of “rain bombs” over the last year is a more productive approach.

There are no magic bullets in this conversation. Here’s an example from my own experience. But engaging in the discussion will help and so will showing gratitude. I’m glad we had this conversation.

We Are All Connected.
Savor the Earth!


L. Hobart Stocking
Facebook: @SkyWaterEarthConnected
Twitter: @SkyWaterEarth