Be the Bridge: How to have productive conversations

Through the trials and tribulations of 2020 I found time to reflect and recenter on positivity and all the work that still needs to be done. Having meaningful conversations that drive change is hard, when there seems to be no getting through to someone, don’t give up just yet!

In 2019 I devoted a great deal of money, time, and effort into a masters program for Natural Resource Management. That year I was visiting family, telling them about the program and how excited I was to make a difference in this space. To understand the gravity of the situation you have to know that I come from a strong Christian family with an entrepreneurial mindset and republican political views. Climate change is NOT often a dinner table topic unless someone makes the mistake of inviting me to dinner 🙂 .

Do you talk about climate change or pollution with your friends and family? After dinner one night I started passionately talking about climate change factors and risks while a family member laughed at me saying it was a bunch of horse shit. Well if you just got a little twinge of anger, I was 10 fold, but I learned such a valuable lesson in that moment. You have to meet people where they are and talk in terms that matter to them if your goal is change versus an argument. I learned to be a bridge.

Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt explains that there are two systems in the brain that drive decisions. The emotional side that is instinctive, and the rational side that is conscious and analyzes information to consider the future. You have to speak to both the emotional and the rational systems in order to change behavior.

I cannot start throwing out data around CO2 emissions or 2 degree temperature change to a person who does not care about that. For the next round of conversation I was prepared, I did research on how climate change is affecting the economy and agriculture today to share current ‘in our generation’ examples. Even better than relating to what motivates or matters to that person, remove that politically charged words like climate change. Just have conversations about the inputs and outputs that affect that individual in a non-accusatory fashion.

What does this look like?

When talking to someone who is religious and believes only God can affect climate, you can speak to Genesis 1:26-28 in that God gave dominion over all living things on Earth to man, meaning it is our responsibility to care for the fish of the sea, birds of the air, cattle and agriculture. This triggers to the emotional and rational systems allowing a bridge for conversations about pollution, care for animals, and sustainable agriculture.

When talking to someone who values the national economy use examples like the following. ‘In the last 3 years wildfires and hurricanes have cost North America $415 billion according to Morgan Stanley.’ ‘Sea level rise is happening in real time, Miami has trillions at risk from infrastructure loss and the cost of mitigation as they are raising roads and building flood water management systems.’ The mistake here would be to go straight to climate change, instead this opens the door to talk about drought, forest management, and sea level rise. Choose a topic that is close to the person you are talking to.

When talking to someone who values local economy and job market discuss how renewable energy such as windmills and solar arrays can be made here in the USA and greatly boost jobs. Around $222 million every year is paid to rural landowners who host wind and solar systems. Again, you are still getting to a root cause of climate change but in terms that trigger their emotional and rational thoughts.

When talking to someone who is concerned with national security discuss how using more renewable energy will help the US achieve energy independence, reducing reliance on foreign nations.

This approach is one of the greatest opportunities for change, no matter the topic. Choose your words wisely to avoid politically charged phrases and focus on direct topics that align with their values and interests. In order to take this approach you have to know enough about the person so listen first. Second, in order to have a conversation to spark change you have to speak up. Have the hard conversations, be intentional with your words, and above all else be the change you want to see.