Have you met any of these climate conversation characters?

Read part one in our series: How to start a climate conversation.

Climate conversations expert Susannah Raffe gives her experience of talking about climate change, and how to deal with particular kinds of people.

Every conversation is different. And everyone will process, understand and connect with climate change in their own way.

Some people will not yet be willing to tap into emotion while others may express deep sadness or despair. Some will want to talk about facts and engineering, and others about social and political action.

Whoever your conversational partner or partners may be, a few general rules of thumb apply:

  • Start with the assumption that others are well intentioned (humans are caring by nature).
  • Everyone's opinion is valid, interesting and worth your attention.
  • Bring questions, not answers.
  • To be heard you first need to listen.

Here are a few types of people you might know, and how you can include them in a fruitful climate conversation.

Sceptical Sister

It may sound counterintuitive but it's not important to convince people that climate change is a real thing if they just don't want to believe it. There are far more people who do think it's a serious problem but don't know how to engage, and they are the ones we really want to invite into this conversation. Having said that, you love your sister and want her to know how you feel, and you want to know how she feels. Firstly, don't get into a debate. Ask curious questions about what she thinks and feels. Next, find a point of agreement - pollution, renewable energy, water consumption, whatever it may be. Bring kindness and genuine curiosity to an otherwise fraught discussion. To cope with the impacts of climate change we are going to need a lot of good will towards each other regardless of whether we agree on everything.

Activist Aunty

You might be new to this whole climate change thing and are a bit wary of getting into an exhausting discussion with your aunty who has been a climate activist since the ‘70s, knows everything there is to know about the issue and gets easily annoyed at people who are less active than she is. If you'll be in a group and you think she'll disrupt the flow of the conversation and discourage others from expressing opinions, have a quiet word with her beforehand about why compassion is important in this setting. Ask her to help you out. Also, when you begin the conversation, and introduce the topic, set the tone by saying something like this: "I'm really interested to know what you all think about climate change. I know everyone will have  different thoughts (and some of you know a lot more than I do) but I'd love it if we can all talk about this openly and respectfully".

Blasé Brother

You will find some people for whom climate change just doesn't resonate. And maybe your brother is one of them. Don't try to guilt him or beat him over the head with "the terrible truth". Maybe this time he won't respond, but you never know when a seed, once planted, might sprout. He knows how you feel now, and maybe in the future he'll begin to think about it more, he’ll notice news articles that he hadn’t before, and might just raise it with you again soon.

Generation-gap Grandpa

Your grandpa has lived a lot longer than you with vastly different experiences. Don't assume anything! His generation is as diverse as yours, so while the over 60s are often portrayed as conservative with traditional views, you never know unless you ask. Respect your elders... But it's okay to respectfully disagree. As always, questions are your friend here.

Fact-mad Friend

Perhaps your friend is an engineer, or data analyst, or scientist, or just generally understands the world through facts. That's absolutely fine. But it's not necessary for you to have all the answers they crave. Be open, say "I don't know", or ask "does the answer to that change how we respond?". Perhaps this is an opportunity to suggest watching a doco together... A joint investigation with a bowl of popcorn?

Despairing Daughter

Despair. Grief. Anger. You've no doubt been there yourself and will continue to flicker in and out of these emotions. They are entirely normal. Acknowledge to your daughter that you feel these things too. Tell her about something that gives you hope and allows you to take action. Whatever you do, don't tell her to "stop being so negative". These are actually really important feelings to have because they connect us with the severity and urgency of climate change. The important thing is not to stay there too long. Help each other through this.

Photo: Connie, cc