Sally Gillespie

Sally Gillespie

As ice melt increases and bush fires rage, it is more vital than ever that we talk about the looming global climate crisis. We cannot act unless we talk and we cannot talk unless we learn to recognise and acknowledge how uncomfortable we can feel bringing up climate issues with our family, friends and work colleagues.

We all know by now that climate conversations can be laden with a number of challenging emotions including anxiety, confusion, grief, guilt and feelings of hopelessness. Yet avoiding talking about climate problems and how we feel about them only makes the situation worse. Encouragingly what I and others have found through researching climate conversations is that when we do take the plunge into climate conversations, feelings of connection can build up quickly. Talking about what challenges, inspires and moves us, help us to step out of feelings of isolation and fear, and start engaging.

In their free downloadable publication Facing the Heat, Psychology for a Safe Climate gives stories of climate conversations drawn from real life, which illustrate the challenges and opportunities of climate conversations. The stories highlight a number of crucial factors in opening up climate discussions with those who may be initially resistant or reactive. These include being patient, choosing the right time for positive connection, learning to de-escalate conflict, being curious about the emotions driving aggressive responses, listening to others with empathy and respect, and seeking common ground. Given the complexity and intensity of feelings that climate talk arouses, immediate outcomes can be unpredictable. However open and friendly conversations can plant seeds of connection and change in others which grow over time.

Here some top tips to get started:

  1. Before you start a climate conversation check out your own and others’ mood and energy. Are you in a good place and time for a respectful, open conversation?
  2. People listen better when they feel listened to. First ask the person or people you are talking with how they feel about climate change and what they know about it. These open questions can start a rich conversation.
  3. Listen well, with empathy, seeking common ground, whether through shared emotions or concerns. Lecturing people or throwing lots of science or dire scenarios at them never works, it only increases defensiveness in the listener. Rather than quoting statistics, ask those you are talking to about what they are most worried about losing in our natural world. You don’t have to agree on the science or politics to find common ground in caring for waterways, native habitat or the beachfront.
  4. Check out how receptive people are to receiving information eg. “I would like to show you something I have seen recently that affected me deeply. Would you be interested and is this a good time?” Or invite friends over for a film and discussion night featuring Damon Gameau’s inspiring documentary on climate issues and solutions 2040 or Craig Reucassel’s entertaining series Fight for Planet A.
  5. Link conversations to possible actions. Remember that role modelling through behaviour is a highly influential driver of change. When you make a change in your lifestyle in response to climate concerns, like eating more vegan meals, installing solar panels, switching to a green energy power company or a super fund that does not invest in fossil fuels talk about why you are doing this with others. Then offer to share more information if they show interest.
  6. Remember that generally educating others or bringing them into engagement is something that happens over a number of smaller conversations rather than one big one. Don’t fret if you feel your conversation has not got to your desired outcome. Starting the conversation is what matters. Establishing a connection and openness to talking about climate is a game changer in itself when it takes you and others out of the “I can’t/don’t want to think about this” space into feeling this is something we can and must face together.