Tricky conversation

As you may know, I am planning to start trying to pull my street together as a community via getting kids out on the street playing and maybe a street party.  At some point I want to move the conversation with my neighbours on to what we can do to reduce our carbon emissions as a group.  This jump causes me some anxiety, as I haven’t got it clear in my head how to start that conversation without undoing the community building work.

So, I’m doing some reading.  When I feel confident again, I’ll try my newfound tactics out in practice with some people I know where I’m not as concerned about the outcome.

So far my logic, reading and some personal experience leads me to postulate that bypassing the confrontational conversation about belief in climate change might be a fruitful avenue to take.  I’ll approach the town of climate change, but take the ring road and go straight to community energy and reducing bills.

ConfrontationLogically, if you want to get people to change their habits, talking about how to go about making that change in a positive way seems to be a good route to take.  Using an analogy, if you want someone to put out a fire, telling them to get that fire extinguisher would be more likely to succeed quickly than first trying to convince them there are flames.  I wonder if the same would work for smoking?  If you talked to an addict about where they could get an e-cigarette, would that make them more likely to quit than discussing lung cancer?

There has been limited scientific research on messages that have been more successful in convincing people of the existence of man-made climate change.  One study showed that describing a positive possible future where climate change is defeated leads people to accept the science, whereas describing a negative future did the opposite. This was particularly true for people who have an underlying belief that the world is a just place.

One evening I went out in London for a meal with friends.  One of us is in denial about climate change.  Although of course they know I am passionate about the issue, I generally avoid that conversation for fear of unnecessarily stoking up an argument.  What I have noticed is that if the subject comes up, by breezing over it as though the debate is simply not there to have, and talking instead about the solutions, leads to a much lighter and more constructive conversation, at least than the one I was expecting.  Interestingly, it also means that the consensus support for action among the group comes to the fore.  When in the past the conversation has been on the more divisive subject of the existence of man-made climate change, it tends to lead to a shorter tete-a-tete involving just the two protagonists, with the rest of the crew keeping their heads down.

So, I think the next step for me will be to construct that happy, constructive story of a positive future, and my plans to get there.  I think the exercise will be good for me personally, as well as preparing me for the trial conversations.

Make sense?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke


7 thoughts on “Tricky conversation

  1. Yeah, makes sense to me John. I’m an engineer so I have no training or skill in the psychology arena. Keep me posted.

      • I do not avoid the subject but with new acquaintances, it is not the first topic I raise. My friends know my feelings about climate change: some believe it is not man made, some accept it may be man made but, if the cause is due to fossil fuel emissions, nothing can be done about it, because we would have to get the chinese, indians and everyone else to stop burning fossil fuels, and that it not going to happen.

  2. “What I have noticed is that if the subject comes up, by breezing over it as though the debate is simply not there to have, and talking instead about the solutions, leads to a much lighter and more constructive conversation, at least than the one I was expecting.”

    In a way that reminds me of the slogan which Cancer Research UK have adopted – “Let’s beat cancer sooner”. It completely bypasses the debate as to whether or not cancer will one day be beaten, and therefore (by extension) whether or not funding research is worthwhile. I think it’s very clever.

    • So something like “Let’s beat climate change sooner” might bypass both the debate as to whether climate change is man-made and whether we can sort it. Or maybe something more tangible and empowering like “Let’s create the distributed, community-based renewable energy future sooner”, but less wordy and esoteric. How better to put that?

  3. Hi John,

    I’m not sure if this is completely relevant to your idea of speaking with people on your street, but I’d recommend for you to take a look at this brochure on communicating about climate change based on the experience of campaigners in Australia, they caution against focusing solely on just the positives as this can seemingly actually backfire.

    This video sets out an alternative communications strategy based around public health messaging:

    • Tricky one. In my experience, talking about the solutions, e.g. renewable energy revolution, and the positives they bring, e.g. complete control of our own power needs, does work well. It does need to be accompanied by an almost dismissive acknowledgement of climate change (e.g. “of course, it will also help us sort out climate change”).

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