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How to Have a Useful Conversation About Climate Change in 11 Steps
Climate change can be an emotional topic. Here’s how to approach it
As a psychology professor, I always try to listen to what my students are teaching me. For example, I used to poll my classes and ask everyone, “Who here tries to change their partner?” Almost everyone would raise their hand. Then I’d ask, “Who likes it when their partner tries to change them?” Nobody raised their hand, but there were always a few knowing chuckles.
After working in mental health and education for 20 years, I’ve learned that nobody likes being told what to do. When we want to talk about climate change with friends or family, or even with a stranger on social media, I think we too quickly launch into a proclamation of 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 that result in people feeling more engaged, informed, and willing to do something different?
Here is an 11-step guide that will get results:
1. Know thyself
Before you have a conversation with someone else, you need to have a conversation with yourself. (Thank you, Richard of City Atlas.) Begin by asking yourself this question: “Why does climate change matter to me?” Spend time getting familiar with your own thoughts, emotions, assumptions, stories, and consumption habits. Ask yourself the questions in this 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 it will make you well-prepared to have your first conversation with someone else about climate change.
2. Having a conversation about climate change takes practice
It’s best to start small and work your way up, just like you would if you wanted to lift weights. Begin by choosing someone you know well, who is likely open to having the conversation. This 11-step approach is not for confronting 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. This is your time to build communication skills and enhance your confidence.
3. Begin by asking for consent
Be direct and gentle. 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?” You could say this when it’s relevant to the present conversation or you could just go ahead and bring it up because this topic is important, it’s been on your mind, and you want to talk about it. Remember, when you do bring climate change into a conversation, 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. If the answer is “yes,” ask them when they’d like to talk and agree to a time. Again, this is all about consent. If they ask why you want to talk about climate change, tell them what you’ve discovered in step one: “I think it’s important to talk about climate change, and I’d like to know what you think. If it’s okay, I might also share what I think.” Your job is to lead with curiosity, make space, and mostly just listen.
4. Be a good host
Maybe you buy them a cup of coffee or a cookie. Make sure the person has time to settle in and get comfortable. Be friendly and don’t rush 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.
5. Begin by asking, “What do you know about climate change?”
Listen respectfully and don’t interrupt your friend or attempt to correct them. You’ll want to get a sense of where they’re coming from so you can learn which facts and opinions shape their understanding. If they ask you what you know or what you think, you can say a few things, but it’s important that you 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.
6. Ask: “How do you feel about climate change?”
Feeling is different from knowing or thinking. Be curious about confusion, anxiety, grief, anger, indifference, excitement, dread, or whatever else your friend may feel. Ask questions to learn more about why they are anxious or confused, 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. You don’t want to say too much and overwhelm them. Make space for their feelings without crowding in yours. Listen with empathy. Climate change is intensely emotional; we have to honor and talk about that.
7. Ask: “What do you think we can do about climate change?”
This question is about power, agency, and possibility. You’re asking about ways to mitigate, adapt to, or stop climate change. You’re 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, feel free to 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 feeling more connected, hopeful, and engaged. You are planting seeds and 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.
8. Ask: “What do you think you can do about climate change?”
Now you’re asking about their personal sense of power, agency, and possibility. This question is designed to prompt a 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’re introducing or supporting the idea that their personal power and choices make a difference. If they ask you the same question, use the same rules as before: Listen, don’t lecture, and make space for them to make choices on their own.
9. 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 or 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. 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 that help us learn more about climate change. I also suggest that people follow the work of climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe and Michael Mann. Use whatever resources you’re familiar with and prefer to share. You can also say a little about what you’re 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 there is more to learn and do, and there are ways to easily get started.
10. Ask: “Can we talk about this again sometime?”
If they say “no,” let it be. If they say “yes,” terrific. 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.
11. Continue to talk about climate change.
Katharine 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’re talking to as a “problem,” and don’t look at yourself as the “problem solver” who has all the answers. Rather, it’s important that we have these conversations as humans who wish to connect with other humans. 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’re all in this together.