February 27, 2019

How to have a Useful Conversation about Climate Change in 11 Steps.


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As a teacher, I always try to listen to what my students teach me.

I used to poll my classes and ask everyone, “Who here tries to change their partner?” Most everyone would raise their hand.

Then I’d ask, “Who likes it when their partner tries to change them?” Nobody ever raised their hand, but there were always a few knowing chuckles.

Something I’ve learned through working in mental health and education for 20 years is that nobody likes being told what to do.

And I think sometimes, when we want to talk about topics like climate change with friends or family, or with a stranger on social media, we too quickly launch into proclaiming the superiority of our opinions. We lecture more than we listen, and this gets in the way.

A key question is this:

How can we have productive conversations about climate change, conversations that result in the people being more engaged, informed, and willing to do something different?

Here is an 11-step guide that will get results.

Step one: 

Know thyself. Before you have a conversation with someone else, it’s important to start with having a conversation with yourself (thank you Richard of City Atlas).

Begin with asking yourself the question, “Why does climate change matter to me?” Spend time becoming familiar with your own thoughts, emotions, assumptions, stories, and consumption habits. Ask yourself the questions included in the 11-step map, and really listen to everything you have to say.

This will give you an invaluable foundation of self-understanding and self-awareness, and will make you well prepared to have your first conversation.

Step two:

Appreciate that, like any skill, having a conversation about climate change takes practice. It’s best to start small and work your way up; just like if you want to lift weights, you start with lighter weights and train up to lift heavier ones.

Begin by choosing someone you know well and who is open to having the conversation. This 11-step approach is not for taking on trolls or deniers. It’s for talking with regular people who just aren’t used to talking about climate change. So choose a friend, and set yourself up for a win, so you can build your skills and enhance your confidence.

Step three:

Begin the conversation by asking for consent. Just be direct and gentle, and say, “I was wondering if we could talk about climate change,” or “I’d like to talk about climate change with you, would that be okay sometime?” Maybe say this when it’s relevant to the present conversation, or just go ahead bring it up because it’s important, it’s been your mind, and you want to talk about it.

Remember, when you do bring it up, make sure your friend has the freedom to say “yes” or “no.” Nobody likes being told what to do, but people do like when you give them respect and space.

If they say “no,” accept their answer and let it be. It’s none of your business why they don’t want to talk about it. If the answer is “yes,” ask them when they’d like to talk and agree to a time. Again, consent.

If they ask why you want to talk about climate change, tell them, “I think it’s important to talk about, and I’d like to know what you think, and, if it’s okay, maybe share what I think.” Your job is to lead with curiosity, make space, and mostly just listen.

Step four:

When the conversation is about to begin, be a good host. Maybe buy them a coffee or a cookie, or just try to make sure the person has time to settle in and be comfortable to talk. Be friendly and don’t rush to the end result. A good conversation is like having a good meal. You don’t want to race to finish it, you want to appreciate it.

Being a good host communicates patience, respect, and goodwill. This creates a strong foundation for a useful and engaged conversation.

Step five:

After some time to settle in, begin by asking, “What do you know about climate change?” or “What do you think about climate change?” Listen respectfully, and don’t interrupt or attempt to correct. You want to get a sense of where they’re coming from and learn what facts and opinions shape their understanding.

If they ask you what you know or what you think, maybe say a little, but don’t crowd them with your ideas and opinions. Let the focus be on them. The approach is to listen, not lecture, because nobody likes being told what to do. Your agenda should be curiosity and being a good host.

Step six:

Ask, “How to you feel about climate change?” Feeling is different from knowing or thinking. Be curious about confusion, anxiety, grief, anger, indifference, excitement, dread, or whatever your friend may feel. Ask questions to learn more about why they are anxious, confused, etc., questions like, “What kinds of things are you anxious about,” or “What is confusing for you?” If they ask how you feel, be honest and tell them, but also be gentle, so don’t say too much and don’t overwhelm them.

Make space for their feelings without crowding them with yours. Listen with empathy. Climate change is intensely emotional. We have to honor and talk about that.

Step seven:

Ask, “What do you think we can do about climate change?” This question is about power, agency, and possibility. You are asking if they think there are ways to mitigate, adapt to, or stop climate change. You are asking what they think and feel could be helpful, if they think we’re powerless, or if they just don’t know.

Again, if they ask your opinion, share a little, but make space for them. If you think there’s nothing we can do, why would they want to talk to you again or become engaged in the issue? Remember, this is about having a useful conversation that can lead to the person being more connected, hopeful, and engaged, not a way to bum out your friend.

You are planting seeds, introducing the notion that climate is an issue we can do something about. You are helping your friend shift from being a passive observer to an engaged participant.

Step eight:

Ask, “What do you think you can do about climate change?” You are asking about their personal sense of power, agency, and possibility. The question is designed to prompt conversation about hope, participation, and a sense of personal involvement. Not only are there things we can do about climate change, there are things you can do.

You are introducing or supporting the idea of that their personal power and choices make a difference. If they ask you the same question, same rules as before: listen, don’t lecture, and make space for them to make choices on their own.

Step nine:

Ask, “Would you like to learn more or do more about climate change?” If they say “no,” don’t try to change their mind. You can be curious and gently inquire about their understanding, but don’t judge or be pushy. Nobody likes being told what to do. If they say “yes,” ask them what they’d like to learn more about or what kind of “doing more” they’d be interested in discussing.

Come prepared with practical information, including options for learning or doing more.

I use Project Drawdown as a source of solutions and 350.org, Sunrise Movement, and Climate Reality as examples of groups to learn from or join. I also suggest people follow the work of climate scientists such as Katherine Hayhoe and Michael Mann. Use whatever resources you are familiar with and prefer to share.

You can also say a little about what you are learning and what you personally do about climate change, as long as you don’t overwhelm them or tell them what to do. The idea is to show that there is more to learn and do, and that there are ways to easily get started. What they decide to the specifics for themselves. Just make space and trust them.

Step ten:

Ask, “Can we talk about this again sometime?” If they say “no,” let it be. If they say “yes,” terrific, then talk again in the future. Future conversations can be less structured—make it any style you like—but please remember that nobody likes being told what to do. Continue to be curious, generous, inviting, patient, and kind.

Step eleven:

Continue to talk about climate change. Katherine Hayhoe tells us that one of the most important things we can do about climate change is to talk about it. Make consent and curiosity the core of these conversations.

Don’t view the person you are talking to as a “problem” and view yourself as the “problem solver” who has all the answers. It’s important that we have these conversations as humans who wish to connect with humans, so we need to make sure that we don’t dehumanize and “fix” each other. We need to be trustworthy and kind.

Our ability to be humane is absolutely central to our success in meaningful, impactful climate change work. We are all in this together.


Thank you for following along. My goal is to provide you with a guide that might help you or inspire you to have conversations about climate change. Share, change, or improve this map any way you see fit, or ignore it and do your own thing.

I don’t want to tell you what to do about climate change. I just want to talk about it.

author: Dan Rubin

Image: @Ecofolks

Image: Lindsay/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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James Eggleston May 29, 2019 9:48pm

Just listened to your conversation on the Disruptive Environmentalist podcast. This is a really helpful outline that I’ll be using in the future. Great article!

Lou Apr 7, 2019 10:41am

Although you mention often that this is a conversation and that you want to be respectful, You are offering a lecture and have no respect for dissent. Asking loaded questions such as: “What do you know” presumes that you will be teaching them the “right” views to hold, followed by the “right” solutions.

The truth is that climate change is debatable, and like any debate, all sides of the conversation must be honored and respected. This cannot be done with this sales call type approach you offer where you buy a cookie and sit people down to “learn” about your political agenda.

Climate change has become nothing more than a failed religion with a doomsday prophesy. Like all of these cults, it has missed its own predicted end of the world and kept right on going. The end of the world is not coming in 12 years from now either.

Unlike other cults, climate change intends to become the official state religion that will require massive mandated tithing in the form of taxes for everyone whom uses energy, and unemployment for everyone in the fossil fuel industry. This will be accomplished by the government seizing control of the energy industry.

When I talk about climate change with members of the cult, I often find that they are doing nothing. They drive SUVs and have central air. They are waiting for the government to do it all for them with no sacrifice or inconvenience on their part. It seems more that they are in agreement in theory only and not in practice. They want to appear to be right, not to do right.

I drive a CNG vehicle and use window units so that I only air condition the rooms I’m using. In both of these instances I am saving money naturally. Not by receiving subsidies, but by being economical. I know better than to turn industry over to the government in what is obviously a socialistic grab for power over the economy in the hopes that they will perform the unneeded duty of saving the world.

The truth about climate change is that the climate changes dramatically by itself. The ice ages all occurred before the industrial age. Our efforts will be ineffective. Other countries will continue to industrialize during the years we are supposed to be eliminating our own fossil fuel use. The net result will be higher CO2 levels 12 years from now, and of course no changes in the environment.

Climate zealots are never able to explain exactly how it works. What is the time table for CO2 reduction? If the world ends in 12 years, how much of a reduction do we need to have in 2 years? In 5 years? What is the time table for crushing all the gasoline cars? When should auto manufacturers stop making gasoline and diesel cars? When should we have all the windmills and solar panels set up? When should we fire all the people who work in gas stations, oil refineries, drilling and coal mining? What about all of the items made out of oil? Plastics, fabrics, tires, cars, homes, and a million other things we use everyday are made of oil. What is the exact formula for how much can be done when and what impact our reduced use will have on the climate? Exact figures are needed when you speak of causing massive unemployment for people in the fossil fuel industry.

All science is merely an opinion. We see this in the medicines that are declared safe in testing and trial use before being offered on the market. Then there is a class action lawsuit to help all the people who were harmed by the medicines. Just presuming that you can take a highly debatable ideology like climate change and mandate the belief as law and then disrupt the lives of millions of people is very pretentious and elitist. Such massive destruction of people’s lives must be a part of the conversation so that climate zealots can learn the truth that they have been avoiding all along.

Dan Rubin, PsyD Apr 3, 2019 12:43pm

If you liked this article, check out my article “Everyone An Activist: What You Do+Climate Change=Activism.”

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Dan Rubin, PsyD

Dan Rubin is a clinical psychologist in private practice and adjunct professor of psychology at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon. He mostly writes about climate change, psychology, Buddhism, and how to create the future we want to live in. Follow on Twitter @dan_psyd.