Ever wondered how to communicate with climate change deniers. In the previous post, I explained WHY there are still climate change deniers out there. Now I’m giving you hands-on advice, on how to break the neurological stubbornness — and yes, there’s a spaceship.
If you work in the environmental field, you will encounter several different personas.
One of them is the denier. He denies the logic of whatever argument you make.
I have worked with recycling for some years now, and the denier personae has some telling characteristics.
I’m gonna break down what that denial looks like, shed light on the actual meaning behind his words, and give you the communication tools to get your message out there. Most importantly, you won’t come off as a personal threat.
A conversation with the denier might go something like the following. For the sake of the example, I’m going to give my denier a name.
Meet Dave! He’s attending a talk I’m giving, about the importance of recycling.
Me: Sorting your waste is really good for the environment.
Dave: Hah! Once the garbage trucks pick up the waste, they’re just going to put it all in the same container anyway.
Me: No, the garbage trucks don’t mix the waste. It is kept separated and brought to a processing plant.
Dave: I don’t believe you. They’re just going to mix it.
Understanding the underlying emotions
Timeout. Let’s look at the interaction. I’m giving Dave some information, and he’s refuting it.
At first glans it may look like Dave just has the wrong information, or that he’s an arrogant twat. He’s basically saying that he knows more about the waste industry than I do. I am the person working with waste after all, and Dave thinks he knows better than me.
If I didn’t know why Dave is acting like this, it might be a frustrating situation, where I leave the room feeling like I’m wasting my time on stubborn, old Dave.
But if we dissect the situation, and look at the emotional conversation of what Dave “hears”, and “says”, here’s the actual interaction:
Me: You need to sort your waste because otherwise, you’re being a bad person by not caring about the environment.
Dave: I don’t want to recycle, cause I’m afraid it’s gonna take a lot of effort on my behalf and I might not be able to get it right. If I can’t sort my waste correctly, it will hurt my ego. I like to think that I am good at most things, so sorting my recycling wrong will make me feel inadequate.
Therefore I‘m gonna use this old rumor I heard about the garbage trucks mixing the waste, to prove to myself, and to you, that the whole thing is a waste of time and energy. Then I won’t have to change my mind or my actions. More importantly, I won’t have to risk the ego punch of not knowing how to recycle.
Remember my post about some convictions being tied to a sense of self. Well, this is one of them. On a subconscious level I am a threat to Dave, because I am “telling him,” that he’s a bad person by not recycling, and that there’s something he’s not good at.
There’s a chance you’re reading this right now and thinking:
‘No. Come on, Mona, people are better than that. No one feels emotionally threatened by waste.’
Are you sure? Having a strong sense of identity is normal and sometimes that identity is tied up on being good at something specific.
Other times, it’s tied up on being good at everything. Or maybe even being bad at everything.
Try taking just a few minutes to, mentally, go through your friends and family members. Do you know people who don’t like being wrong? Do you have relatives who take criticism very personally?
Did you ever go to school with someone who only saw their mistakes and weaknesses, and disregarded every good grade they got?
Humans are not rational beings, and climate change is really scary and complex. Humans aren’t good with complex issues — we like simple solutions and quick-fixes.
Get on their team — how to not be a threat
Okay, not that we’ve learned to listen to the emotional conversation, it’s time to do better.
With more than 5 years as a professional trash-talker, I’ve met a lot of “Daves”.
When I do, and am greeted with the counter-argument that they just mix the waste, I say the following, magical words:
I used to think that too!
Yes, I remember the story of when it happened in [insert whatever city you feel like], but then I went to see the trucks in action, and they have made these really cool technological advances on the trucks.
Now, the trucks have separate compartments for the different kinds of trash. It’s really cool!
All of the above is true, I had heard the rumors of the mixing and had, at one point, believed them. By telling Dave this, I put myself in the same boat as my audience, before giving him more information.
I, via my choice of words, tell Dave that he and I are the same. I understand him, I am like him. I also (subconsciously) used the excuse of the truck.
If I get the feeling that it’s the fear of not messing up the recycling that’s standing in the way, I say this:
‘Dude, I’ve always been into the environment but I was so confused when I first started recycling. Like, is this plastic or glass, right? Luckily, someone showed me this trick to tell it apart. The rest was just a matter of practice. It didn’t take that long, and now I can help my grandmother recycle.’
You need to put yourself on the same team as your audience.
Understand them. Respect them. When you do that, you are no longer a threat.
I do the same when I speak in front of larger audiences.
The following is a little trick I use. Feel free to steal it and use for your own line of environmental work.
When talking to a larger crow of people, with many different backgrounds where I haven’t the slight clue if they are “Daves”, I say hello, I introduce myself, and then I say:
“Would you like see my spaceship? I swear, it’s not a pickup line.”
Then I show them this photo.
“This is my spaceship, the big round one. I live on it with 6 billion of my closest friends.
On a spaceship, you have to bring all your resources. Food, water, tools, a guitar, and so on.
When you’ve used your resources, that’s it. You don’t have anymore, it’s gone. So you need to manage your resources and not overspend.
The same thing goes for our globe. We only have a finite amount of resources, and if we use them all, that’s it, it’s gone. This is why we need to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible.”
Yes, the above will get different reactions depending on your audience. Some will find it childish, and even patronizing. Never the less it still breaks down a barrier between me and the receiver and creates a common frame of reference, giving me a solid based to start from.
Starting a talk by establishing a collective understanding of the subject (creating a common frame of reference) means, I build trust with my audience, and get in the same boat as them.
Throughout the talk, I’ll now be able to refer back to the spaceship, and why it’s important that we manage our resources.
Summing up — how to deal with deniers
1. You’re not perfect either. First of all remember, that you too have been a stubborn mule at some point. I sure know I have (Sorry Jens, you were right about the equator thing).
Remembering that we’re all humans and that we all have areas where we’ve stubborn or feel vulnerable, will make it much easier talking to people, who are currently neurologically tied to their conviction.
2. Don’t be the Hulk. Remember, that when you are in a debate with a denier, you are emotionally threatening the receiver. You look like the Hulk, ready the smash them with your beliefs. To put it in another way; your facts and evidence, are emotionally hurtful.
It’s important for me to stress that this doesn’t mean you should discard evidence and facts, for the sake of making the other person feel emotionally at ease. But if you are an emotional threat, your listener will treat you like that and will either fight or flight. I’m sure you’re experienced both before.
3. Use your common denominator. Find common ground, something you can agree on, and use that as an entrance to start a respectful conversation about the subject. When you peel away all the convictions, the cultural differences, and our social bubbles, we all really want the same thing — to be happy. Does the change you want to make tie into the other person’s idea of happiness? Why, why not?
You don’t have to be preaching to the choir to find common ground with your audience — just respect them, and be curious.
I know the above is hard work, and the world we live in is making it harder. The social media bubbles only allow us to see what people with similar opinions think. At the same time the fast pace of the internet is deteriorating our ability to learn complicated subjects and keep a healthy critical mind. (If you want to know more about this subject, I highly recommend reading The Shallows.)
Okay, that’s it for now. Now go and test it out in your field. I would LOVE to hear how you’ve used it, and if it helped! So leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail.
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