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How to talk about climate change in an emotionally intelligent way

Climate change may be divisive, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Here’s how to approach the topic effectively.

How to talk about climate change in an emotionally intelligent way
[Photo: NASA Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center). Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense.]

Simply look at the reaction environmental activist Greta Thunberg received after speaking at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations (or really, when she does anything) and you’ll see how heated things can get when people talk about climate change.

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“The issue is that people’s positions on climate change—or any divisive topic, like abortion or trophy hunting—are based in their values and beliefs, which are tightly bound to their emotions,” says Nardia Haigh, associate professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Scenario Planning for Climate Change. “Attacking someone will likely only escalate the things.”

The overwhelming wealth of scientific evidence can make this topic feel even more polarizing says Emma Frances Bloomfield, assistant professor of communication studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “People can be confident that it’s true, but that confidence can be interpreted as arrogance or patronizing, which can lead to skeptics feeling isolated and silenced,” she says.

With the holidays approaching, many of us will be stuck at the table or sitting on the couch with relatives with radically different viewpoints than our own. So what do you do if you’re concerned about rising sea levels or shrinking ice sheets and you want to have a productive conversation that doesn’t devolve into personal attacks? Stick to a few rules, experts say.

Casually introduce the topic

Instead of pulling out a soapbox, use current events, such as extreme weather or the elections, as a gentle transition into a conversation about climate change.

“As you introduce the topic, gauge their interest in talking,” says Bloomfield, whose research on science communication was recently published in the book Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics. “They may say, ‘Hey, I’m not interested.’ But who knows; that person might come back to you later. You don’t want to blindside somebody, which might contribute to their fears.”

Measure their resistance

Understanding the source of the denial can help you better craft a conversation, says Bloomfield. There are several reasons why someone may dismiss climate change.

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For example, the person may not trust climate scientists, thinking the science is inaccurate, the scientists have been bought out, or that climate science is driving a certain agenda. Some dismiss climate science because it suits their own economic well-being; it’s better for them to not have climate policies in place. And others may deny the idea for religious reasons, believing that God is in control of the environment, not humans.

“Some people who are adamant will not be swayed on topic,” cautions Bloomfield. “I don’t recommend engaging those people in conversation, except to point out in an online forum or public space where others who are present might benefit. Then engage with the intent not to change their minds but to further the conversation.”

You can engage people who are doubtful, cautious, uncertain, and skeptical but whose minds aren’t closed. “Luckily polls show us that most people fall into this category,” she says.

Treat the conversation as a dialogue

Have a conversation with mutual respect. “You can disagree, but enter the conversation  understanding the intrinsic value with the person you’re talking with,” says Bloomfield. “It’s a dialogue, not a lecture to tell them what they don’t know. You may find that you agree on common points.”

If you’re met with resistance, inquisitively ask why they think the way they do. “You can say, ‘Tell me what you think about the environment,'” says Bloomfield. “Some people who are admittedly deniers or skeptics still care about the environment. If you go into the conversation assuming they don’t care about science or the environment you put yourself at a disadvantage and the conversation at a rocky start.”

Connect to their values

You’re not likely to have conversations with pure strangers about climate change, so you probably already know a lot about the person that you’re engaging with, says Bloomfield. “Draw on those previous experiences—what do you already know about this person?” she asks. “Go into the conversation with a knowledge-gaining mindset, rather than a persuasive goal.”

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Meet people at their values instead of their position, suggests Haigh. “To do this you need to make an effort to understand their values relating to climate change,” she says. “Take a leaf out of Socrates’ book and ask them questions about what climate change means to them personally or professionally, then listen, and ask follow-up questions.”

Erec Smith, associate professor of rhetoric and composition at York College of Pennsylvania, says their source or resistance can be connected to their values. He uses activist Jonathan Smucker’s tactic called “narrative insurgency” to look for common ground.

“For example, if a person cites creationism as a reason to forego climate change initiatives, one can also make a religious reference by citing the Bible passage, Genesis 2:15, which says humankind is supposed to care for God’s creation,” says Smith. “This common ground makes one’s point without an outright refutation of the other’s beliefs.”

In another case, a climate change denier may be extremely concerned about the well-being of their business if the EPA puts in place more policies, says Bloomfield.

“I had a conversation with someone with this concern and shared examples of businesses that had gone green and how becoming eco-friendly helped them profit,” she says. “Engaging with their values and helping them see how the environment and something they care about can be intimately connected created a level of civility to conversation.”

Understand the person’s need for security

When people argue topics for which they are passionate, their motivation is less about getting to the truth and more about what psychologist and emotional intelligence specialist George Kohlreiser calls a “secure base,” says Smith.

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“Put simply, this secure base is a sense of protection and fulfillment that comes with certainty and is a major human need regarding human well-being,” he says. “When a belief is challenged, a person may feel like he or she is being threatened, and an argument about climate change becomes a defense of one’s emotional and psychological well-being.”

Emotional and cognitive empathy are imperative, says Smith. “Trying to understand why a person thinks the way he or she thinks is not only a caring thing to do; it will assist a person in gauging a situation accurately and speaking accordingly,” he says. “Don’t just wait for the other person to stop talking so that you can have your turn to make your excellent point. Truly listen to the other person to better discern what you need to say and how you need to say it.”

Set boundaries

If the discussion is met with resistance or if the other person wants to argue, state that you only want to have the conversion if it’s under mutual respect.

“Give the person trust and respect, but if they’re not giving it back to you, you don’t want to continue,” says Bloomfield. “The most graceful way to exit a conversation is to not match them; don’t get angry, and don’t get aggressive.”

Instead, let the person know the rules to which you want to adhere. “The other person can be responsible for ending the conversation if they violate the rules,” says Bloomfield. “It only serves to show how reasonable and rational you are. You want to have conversation, not a screaming match.”

Moving forward

Having diverse views in any society is a good thing, and they are important for democracy, says Haigh. “Opposing views help you build rigor,” she says. “They make you do your homework to ensure you know the foundations of your own views, so you can either defend them better, or update them if needed.”

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Bloomfield hopes more people are open to having climate conversations. “If we’re having more conversations about it, more people may start to listen. Maybe you’ll meet with people who are combative, but I’m surprised more often than not that people are open to these conversation, and that makes me very optimistic.”

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